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 CFA volunteer firefighter Russell Smith and his wife Amanda

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Under pressure: CFA volunteer firefighter Russell Smith and his wife Amanda.

Picture: Trevor Pinder

Herald Sun, October 29, 2007
Fay Burstin – Family Reporter

FAMILY and work pressures on Australia's 20,000 CFA volunteers could soon undermine the country's fire-fighting capacity.

As bushfire season approaches, new research shows difficulties such as marital breakdown, financial pressures and job losses as a result of committing large amounts of unpaid time to the brigade have forced thousands of trained volunteers to resign in recent years.

Volunteer numbers have fallen by about 30 per cent since 1988, although this decline has stabilised since 2004 when fire agencies began working hard to recruit and retain volunteers.

But a new study by La Trobe University researchers, funded by the Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre in a bid to stem the decline, has revealed many volunteers are struggling to balance full-time paid work and family responsibilities with hundreds of hours a year devoted to training and emergency calls.

Study author Sean Cowlishaw found family time was often interrupted by unpredictable call-outs and many families struggled to manage day to day when volunteers were away attending to fires for days at a time.

In rural communities, these problems were exacerbated by the drought's financial and emotional hardships.

"There is certainly anecdotal evidence of marriages failing because of family being relegated second to the brigade one too many times," Mr Cowlishaw said.

He warned that some rural brigades were already threatened by dangerous volunteer shortages and predicted a crisis loomed for many urban forces within the decade.

"With fires burning longer and more out of control as a result of climate change, we now face serious questions about whether the CFA can adequately respond," he said.

Expectant father Russell Smith, 34, knows the birth of his first baby in February – the middle of bushfire season – will mean a sudden change in his availability to the Rowville CFA.

A volunteer for 21 years, the IT manager devotes an average of 20 hours a week to the brigade, training twice a week and taking part in regular fire calls.

But he's keen to avoid mistakes of the past, when his dedication to the CFA contributed to the collapse of his first marriage 10 years ago.

His wife, Amanda, 31, supports his passion, but has made it clear the couple's lifestyle must change when the baby arrives.

"Once he goes out on a call he's basically unreachable, which can be very frustrating," she said.

Kinglake district brigade captain Chris Lloyd has made plenty of personal sacrifices in his 29 years of volunteer fire-fighting, including losing his marriage and his last job.

He now works for himself, but attending to last summer's ongoing local fires cost his business more than $10,000 in lost revenue.

He knows more than a dozen members who have quit recently because of family pressures, and another four working under new workplace arrangements whose employers gave them an ultimatum: the CFA or their jobs.

But his commitment to the organisation he credits with providing him with many friends, a career path, a new relationship and an enormous sense of achievement has never wavered.

"The CFA is a pivotal organisation in our . . . community with many benefits other than fire-fighting," he said.

"I've suffered some personal hardships, but it gives me great personal satisfaction to help others who have gone through much harder times."

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