Aussie volunteers step in as firefighters protest cuts

By Greg Ansley

Photo / File.
Photo / File.

Rural volunteer firefighters moved into Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong yesterday as their professional colleagues walked out for the first time in 56 years to protest against laws paring back injury payments.

Changes to the New South Wales WorkCover scheme exempt the volunteers and police but dramatically reduce compensation for professional firefighters and paramedics.

Fire stations closed at 1pm local time yesterday as thousands joined the strike and refused to answer emergency calls, leaving fires to the volunteers and other state emergency services.

One man told AAP he was disgusted his Sydney house burned while firefighters were striking.

Kym Loutfy's wife and grandson were rescued from the burning house by a passerby.

"If the fire brigade weren't on strike they could come more quicker and there would be less cost and less damage," Loutfy told AAP outside his Sans Souci house, which had been extensively damaged in the fire.

"We have nothing to do with the strike ... Anyone can go on strike but there's supposed to be a back-up for emergency.

"I'm very, very disgusted."

Radio caller Andrew said he had noticed flames coming from the front window of the Sans Souci house and called emergency services.

He said firefighters arrived half an hour later.

"We went into the house downstairs to check that no one was there. We got a lady and her baby out of there," he said.

NSW Fire and Rescue said crews arrived at the scene within seven minutes of receiving a call from police.

It said local crews on their way to the protest responded to the call and carried out search and rescue operations.

However they went on to join the protest after the arrival of the Airports Rescue and Firefighting Service.

Ben Shepherd from the NSW Rural Fire Service said the local RFS sent two trucks and air support as well as firefighters in breathing apparatus.

"With that initial house fire there was probably a longer response time from our trucks," he told Fairfax radio network.

As firefighters protested outside Parliament, the state's Upper House continued a marathon debate over the Workcover changes.

The changes were introduced as a means of hauling back the scheme's huge A$4 billion ($4.8 billion) deficit.

The move would cap compensation and begin reducing payments after 13 weeks, instead of continuing at 100 per cent for 26 weeks.

While the Government vowed to push the changes through, the Greens introduced an amendment exempting firefighters and paramedics.

Striking firefighters were expected to return to work and continue negotiations last night.

But Fire Brigade Employees Union secretary Jim Casey said they would not back down from their fight.

"Firefighters risk their lives for the people of NSW." he said.

"This is a fundamental right and we are not prepared to go backwards on it."

Casey said professional firefighters faced the same level of danger as police and volunteers and should also be exempt.

"It's a disgrace and it makes no sense," he said.

Police said they were confident the Government could resolve the issue.


- Additional reporting AAP

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