Update 26 April 2021
The 2019-20 summer of bushfires focused the attention of the nation on the critical roles that volunteers play during emergencies and the significant volunteer workforce that is at the forefront of the response to such a national crisis.
Volunteering Australia is actively advocating on behalf of volunteers involved in bushfire response and recovery. Overall, stronger mechanisms are needed to coordinate the volunteer response across jurisdictions. Volunteer Involving Organisations played a vital role during the 2019-20 bushfire emergency, but they need be better resourced if they are to play this role effectively in future disasters.
The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements
The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements Final Report recognised the vital role of emergency and recovery volunteers and included the recommendation for national coordination forums. In our pre-budget submission, Volunteering Australia recommended the Australian Government invest in a nationally co-ordinated emergency management approach to volunteer engagement.
The Report includes 80 recommendations for consideration by the Commonwealth, state and territory governments and ‘observations’ offering ‘key insights’. On 13 November, the Commonwealth Government responded to the report stating its intention to support every recommendation for which it is responsible.
Key recommendations that impact volunteers include:
- Consider whether employment protections under the Fair Work Act 2009 are sufficient to ensure that fire and emergency services volunteers will not be discriminated against, disadvantaged or dismissed for reasons associated with their volunteer service during natural disasters.
- Establish a national mechanism for sharing of trained and qualified recovery personnel and best practice during and following natural disasters.
- Convene ongoing national co-ordination forums including volunteer groups, with a view to support continuous improvement of recovery support.
‘Key insights’ relevant to volunteering acknowledge:
- That volunteers should not suffer significant financial loss because of prolonged periods of volunteering, including self-employed volunteers, and that mental health responses are appropriate for addressing the impacts of natural disasters.
- The importance of refreshing the Spontaneous Volunteer Strategy, developing specific action plans, guidelines and consistent registration and coordination mechanisms.
- The importance of considering a more effective national legal framework for charitable fundraising.
Volunteering Australia’s Further Recommendations
We welcome the above recommendations and acknowledgements. In our submission, we made the following recommendations, which we hope to see further considered:
- Clarify compensation for future emergencies in consultation with fire and emergency service volunteers.
- Develop an emergency management workforce strategy.
- Lead a recruitment drive for emergency volunteers.
- Ensure there are comprehensive mental health support services for emergency volunteers.
- Invest in the enabling infrastructure of the volunteering sector
- Actively promote emergency volunteerism and corporate social responsibility (volunteering leave policies) to the private sector.
- Develop and communicate a policy on Commonwealth welfare support compliance obligations for volunteers during disasters.
We also included a series of guiding principles:
- Maintain a clear conceptual understanding of volunteering as “time willingly given for the common good and without financial gain”.
- Reimburse and cover out of pocket expenses of volunteers.
- Protect the health and safety of volunteers.
- Recognise the contribution of volunteers.
- Consult widely with the experts, including volunteers.
Our recent and ongoing advocacy work in relation to volunteering in bushfire response and recovery includes:
- A submission to the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements, and Volunteering Queensland made a further submission.
- The Royal Commission report in October 2020.
- The Federal Government released its response to the Royal Commission in November 2020, and at the start of February released a document tracking its progress.
- A submission to the consultation on the new national co-ordination mechanism for charities and volunteer groups, as did Volunteering Queensland.
- Participating in consultations on the first mental health national action plan for emergency services workers (Tracey Fox, Volunteering SA&NT is on the advisory group).
- A meeting with the Bushfire Recovery Agency to discuss national co-ordination mechanisms further.
Photo courtesy of CFA (Country Fire Authority)