Paid leave for emergency volunteers deserves support

Volunteering has long been a major part of Australian community and culture – but as barriers to volunteering grow it is necessary for the State Government to consider innovative ideas to attract and retain our considerable volunteer workforce.

The latest data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that despite WA’s population growing from 2.5 million to 2.7 million since 2016, the number of volunteers has dropped dramatically – from 380,000 to 340,000.

For myself and the many WA residents who volunteer there is nothing more rewarding than giving back to your community. Volunteering also provides opportunities to help others, meet likeminded people, and learn new skills.

In regional WA, where Government and commercial services can be scarce, the adage that volunteers are the lifeblood of their communities still holds true.

The hard work of passionate volunteers helps provide support to those in need, deliver outstanding events for locals and visitors, organise fundraising initiatives, and so much more.

Our regional communities are also assisted by many emergency service volunteers, who provide fire and rescue operations, ambulance services, marine rescue, and others.

Many of these volunteers provide extra services to their communities, such as first aid training or road safety education.

But our expectations of emergency service volunteers and the life-saving services they provide has changed dramatically over the years.

When I began as an emergency service volunteer in the late 1990s, expectations and entry requirements were minimal. I often refer to it as the two arms, two legs and a heartbeat test.

Today, most brigades, groups and units (BGUs) require a national police clearance, working with children check, minimum training standards, regular ongoing training commitments, and adherence to a long list of policies, codes of conduct, and standard operating procedures.

Don’t get me wrong. These are all good things and well-intended, however, increasing administrative barriers do have an impact on attracting and retaining volunteers in the long run.

Add to this the impact of COVID-19, sharp cost-of-living increases, and haphazard support from the State Government around new Occupational Health and Safety legislation and vaccination mandates, and it’s no wonder emergency service volunteers have dropped from 31,000 a decade ago to roughly 26,000 today.

Since becoming the Shadow Minister for Emergency Services and Volunteering, I have attended several Volunteer Employer Recognition Award ceremonies, recognising the contribution of employers to support emergency volunteers.

From this I discovered the enormous number of businesses, big and small, who support their employees to respond to emergencies and participate in volunteering.

Following the devastating 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires on the east coast, the Federal Government also implemented measures to support Commonwealth public sector workers to volunteer – providing up to 20 days a year of paid leave for recognised emergency service volunteers.

Imagine if the State Government followed the lead of the private sector and the Federal Government by formalising paid emergency service leave for the State’s 214,000 public sector employees – almost a quarter of which are already living in our regions as teachers, police, child protection workers and in a variety of other roles.

This simple measure – which could easily be accommodated within the State Government’s $5.7 billion budget surplus – would help reduce the financial burden of volunteering and may encourage more public sector workers to take up the call and become volunteers.

While some may not support the notion of paying volunteers, this policy does not force payment upon anyone. Rather, it provides workers with the option to take leave from their public sector roles to attend emergencies – often at a physical and emotional cost for responders – while reducing the financial impact of lost income.

It would also send a signal to emergency service organisations of their value and importance.

Given WA’s vulnerability to cyclones, floods and dangerous fire events, and our reliance on volunteers to respond to these disasters, we must do all we can to support those who step up when we are in need.

Politicians and policy makers need to do more than the proliferation of selfies on social media that we see on a regular basis. Thanking volunteers for their service, as important as it is, will not be enough to reverse the trend of volunteering decline in Western Australia.

Boosting volunteering in WA should be a priority for all of us. Without volunteers our communities would not be the vibrant, safe places that they are. Ignoring the decline in volunteering will come at a significant financial cost to our State and a potentially tragic cost for regional communities.

We continue to ask our volunteers to train more, respond more, and do more in their communities. It’s time the State Government steps up and meets them part way.