NSW Flood Inquiry - Public Service Association

NSW Flood Inquiry

The announcements made last week in relation to the NSW flood inquiries have caused considerable concern among PSA members in the State Emergency Service (SES), Rural Fire Service (RFS) and Resilience NSW. In particular, our SES members are hurting because they feel unfairly targeted by a report seemingly designed to take the focus away from Government mismanagement of flood emergency planning and response to that of public service failure.

There was no NSW Government mea culpa or any statement to say “we let you down and forced you to face one of the floods of the century without the sufficient staff and resources”. There was no admission that, despite repeated warnings on changes to climate, previous reforms led to a reduction in the ability of the SES to administer planning, training and emergency response.

The recommendations by the flood inquiries appear to shoulder most of the blame against SES. Certainly in speaking with members, this is how they feel. However, reviews of the unprecedented fires in 2019 didn’t describe the loss of homes, lives and millions of hectares of bushland as a failure. No, rightly so RFS staff and volunteers as well as numerous other public services were applauded for their herculean efforts against a natural emergency with such ferocity there was no possible way that they could win.

The PSA asks: “Where is that same response to those efforts against overwhelming odds made by our SES staff and volunteers?”

What the recommendations say and, more importantly, what they don’t say

The recommendations of merging back-office functions across RFS and SES have no details. The PSA Executive has been openly critical within the media of the recommended mergers simply because it is many of these roles that provide administer-surge resourcing or Incident Management coverage in times of emergency. Many of the functions touted as being delivered by back-office merged staff are currently being administered by frontline SES roles.

Streamlining services has always been code by this NSW Government to mean job losses. It is unclear how the streamlining of services or using the words merging back-office functions will provide support to the communities across the state when dealing with these types of emergencies. This report does little to provide communities with an understanding of what happens to SES personnel when emergencies arise. Invariably, in standing up an Incident Management Teams across the state, the Finance Clerk may become the Logistics Officer or the Admin Officer become the Media Liaison.

Members are well aware of the 2017 Organisational Transformation and the impact it had in deleting zones and deleting functions that could be deemed back office. This led to the SES being the leanest its has ever been. The PSA provided an analysis of that detail in our Parliamentary submission to the Flood Inquiry.

The AFAC response to the 2021 floods provided this Government with an understanding of the misalignment and under resourcing of SES zones. Would there have been better outcomes if there were already an extra 70 staff and $132 million provided to assist in flood preparation and emergency response? The simple answer is: obviously.

Can and should some facets of emergency response co-ordination be homogenised? Yes, but that doesn’t mean wholesale change or an effective takeover of SES functions.

Where to from here?

The Department of Premier and Cabinet has been tasked with the follow-up and implementation of the recommendations. This will involve an exhaustive consultation process with the PSA and its SES members and workplace delegates. The recommendations seek to examine a merger of the back-office functions before the next storm season. The PSA would counsel any attempt to action any such examination in such a truncated fashion on the belief that this timeframe is simply reckless.

The PSA Executive has spoken at length to both the Minister for Emergency Services as well as the Shadow Emergency Services Minister. The PSA will continue to advocate for SES jobs and SES functions remaining with the SES.

In the meantime, the PSA will shortly extend an invitation to PSA members of the SES to fill several current casual vacancies that remain on the Departmental Committee. It is important to have the information from members on ground.

We will, over the coming week, be arranging meetings with you and would encourage all members to join us as we want to hear from you as to your role within SES. Are you based in Wollongong Headquarters, are you a back-office function elsewhere across the state and if so what role do you do?

This information will be critical in our argument in support of yourselves as SES.

For yourself as members, the service that you gave during the floods as experts in dealing with the emergencies must not be downplayed. It must not be diminished nor understated that 10 times the amount of resources wouldn’t have stopped the loss to property and lives.

It is the PSA concern that SES staff and volunteers may simply choose to hang up their boots and say, “if I’m not appreciated, then someone else can deal with the problems”. This will only leave the agency and our vulnerable communities further exposed.

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