Background: Justin was born in the mid north of South Australia and moved to the city at a young age. A member of the local Country Fire Service Brigade and a full time Emergency Services Officer in the Gas and Oil industry, Justin has a unique insight into the Emergency Services in this State and here he shares his views on the increase of the Emergency Services Levy (ESL). J
Justin holds an Advanced Diploma in Public Safety (Emergency Management).
Disclaimer: A blog is always in transition. The information published today might not be valid or accurate in the future. Content, sources, information and links may change over time. The opinions expressed here represent those of Justin Baxter and not those of his employer.
The Emergency Services Levy (ESL) is a levy on all land to help fund emergency services across South Australia. Money received in payment of the ESL is paid into the Community Emergency Services Fund for the provision of emergency services.
South Australia is reforming its fire and emergency services sector. The overall goal being to improve community safety outcomes by increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of the fire and emergency service agencies and the way volunteers and paid staff work together within the sector.
The current Government is blaming federal budget cuts to health and education in South Australia for a big increase in the Emergency Services Levy (ESL).
There is significant disparity in how the ESL is being increased and certainly inequity in how the levy is being applied, however this is not the purpose of this blog writes Justin.
In the middle of this year, Minister for Emergency Services, the Hon Tony Piccolo MP, conducted a series of round-table discussions and site visits with key stakeholders within the Emergency Services Sector. The process was in response to the Holloway Review into the Fire and Emergency Services Act, 2005 and to ensure the Emergency Service Sector is appropriately resourced into the future.
From 1 July 1999, the fire services levy on insurance premiums was replaced with a new broader based emergency services levy on property. This levy funds the provision of emergency services in South Australia and applies to all fixed property and some mobile property.
So, how are those liable* to pay the ESL expected to believe that the latest review and anticipated reform is going to be anything other than ESAU or SAFECOM Mark III?
* Note regarding liability - The ESL is calculated in accordance with the ownership of land as at 12.01 am on 1 July each financial year. The owner at that time is liable for payment of the ESL Amount Payable for that financial year. If the property is sold after 1 July, any adjustment of the ESL is a matter for resolution between the parties (normally adjusted by conveyancers at settlement).
2014 sees yet another review into the delivery of emergency services in South Australia. With this review comes the promise of improved service delivery and cost savings. This is nothing new. This review is the third such review since 1997. Each review has had the central theme of how to improve service efficiency and to make cost savings.
How are South Australians expected to believe that the predicted service gains and cost efficiencies are going to be delivered?
None of us likes paying any more tax than we have to, whether it is a tax, levy, surcharge or whatever names the government of the day wants apply.
I believe the ESL is one such tax that has proved its worth. Prior to its introduction in its current form, funding for emergency services was garnered from a variety of sources in a not so equitable manner.
The previous funding model produced not only a State of haves and have-nots but it even produced Local Government regions of ‘haves and have-nots’.
There was no guarantee of the same level of emergency response anywhere across the State.
During the fires of January 2014 the South Australian Emergency Services undertook their highest level of operational activity in a single day since the Ash Wednesday Fires of 1983. The fires were able to be contained without loss of life or the level of property damage we saw in 1983.
In essence a strong funding model has seen the SA CFS, in particular, able to equip and train its personnel in a consistent and cohesive manner, one which was distinctly absent in 1983.
Is this really the only tangible benefit we have seen since the introduction of the ESL?
What of the improved service delivery and savings made? Why has it required two reviews since the first reform/review to essentially derive the same conclusions as the first review?
I believe we could be doing things better. We could be smarter in utilising funds from the levy in a much more effective way. However, according to the last three reviews we have not yet attained that.
Not one government can be responsible for the current situation. Each of the three reviews has been undertaken by three different governments, one Liberal and two Labor governments. Whilst there have been sector reform and improvements, particularly in relation to legislation we are yet to see reform and outcomes of the calibre each review sought to achieve.
Some history here:
The cynic in me suggests a pattern is emerging which can produce one conclusion; that being that agencies do not want to reform.
It has been long established that the sector requires reform. Each time we see a new version of the same mantra “better service delivery and better utilisation of the ESL.”
On each occasion the key stakeholders (SA Country Fire Service, SA Metropolitan Fire Service and SA State Emergency Service) have essentially been in charge of their own reform or as one would suggest “the fox is in charge of the hen-house”.
Can we really hold them to account for not delivering real sector reform? Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a well used psychological tool used to understand human motivation and is most often used in leadership and coaching.
On the very basis of Maslow’s theory, the pathway to true reform would see people’s security threatened. Essentially they would be tasked to validate their own position and ultimately even to find a way to become redundant. Only true leaders and managers come to understand that by performing well, delegating and entrusting work to their colleagues with that may result in their very redundancy.
In this matter, the two largest stakeholders are the SAMFS and SACFS. I believe both organisations have a long and very proud history in helping South Australians in critical times of need.
However, just as importantly, both of these organisations have cultures steeped in history with much defined senses of purpose. The old guards are distinctly loyal to their creeds.
SA CFS operationally is volunteers. They are proud experts in their own right and represent the rural community. They SA MFS are career, paid and represent the urban community. As they move into the new millennia both are extremely professional and hugely capable but only in skills they choose to be.
Both organisations’ members have representative bodies in the SACFS Volunteers Association and the United Firefighters Union. Both bodies are fiercely loyal to their members.
It is at this juncture where sector reform of the magnitude sought by the mandated governments cannot be delivered. Both of these organisations are too entrenched in archaic principles. They are driven not by the need for genuine reform or delivering more effective service to the people of South Australia. They are driven by the need to protect their service, their patch, their career.
In an altruistic world there would be a paid fire and emergency service in every suburb, town and district but the realism is that we as a State simply cannot afford it.
Therefore it is incumbent on our government and emergency services to act in the best interests of the constituency. However the loyalty to the creed still consistently demonstrates that the best interests of the community are still not being met.
A case in point is that the old guards of the SA MFS have indicated they wish to build a station in Munno Para. They believe with urban expansion there is a requirement to service the area with a career fire service, irrespective of the local SA CFS station in very close proximity to the proposed service currently in the area.
The cost of such a development, once you factor in land acquisition, building costs, equipment costs (including trucks), recruiting costs, and training costs would exceed $7 Million dollars. This does not include recurring ongoing costs. And personnel recruited to operate this facility are not guaranteed to live, breathe and be local.
Nor, I believe, would it provide or have the willingness to provide a capability to manage the significant rural assets that will interface with the urban development.
The SA CFS does not currently have the legislative framework or the capacity to provide a career service to the level which is currently being met by volunteers. Again, the old guard of this service do not have the ability and or willingness to explore evolving the SA CFS beyond its current status.
True sector reform would see the local SA CFS become a mixture of career and volunteer personnel. I believe the cost savings of this model would be immense.
Undoubtedly there would be costs associated with converting the existing station to a permanently manned work place. There would also be costs to upgrade appliances and equipment such as the hybrid urban/rural truck within this station. It would and should be replaced with an appropriate specialist urban type appliance such as the SA MFS use.
Local SA CFS crews are trained and currently respond to the very same incident types attended by the SA MFS. They will not require lengthy training or to be placed on recruit courses and most significantly they retain the ability to respond to the rural interfacing assets at a cost of significantly less than $7 million dollars. And it would be an albeit macro boost to local employment to employ people from this area, in the current environment of significant current and future unemployment the government should be using every opportunity to employ in this area.
This model could easily be adapted to locations such as Mount Barker, Morphett Vale, Port Pirie, Pt Augusta, Pt Lincoln and Victor Harbour. Is there appetite for change? Will loyalty to the creed be the handbrake on this level of reform?
The current incumbents would also have us believe that retained fire stations in rural townships provide a better service outcome. However these stations are nothing more than (retained) volunteer stations. The personnel still carry a pager, in many cases are bound by their commitment to full time employment, have to travel to the station in order to man the truck and don’t (In the vast majority of cases) have a capability to respond to rural incidents in the immediate vicinity. In most cases they respond to significantly less emergency incidents per year than the busiest SA CFS stations but at a considerably increased cost rate to the tax payer. I would also argue they (the old guards) don’t have willingness to upskill to be able to respond in such a way.
In a majority of cases these stations (Peterborough, Kapunda, Tanunda, Kadina, and Murray Bridge) are located in townships with SA CFS resources.
Many of these stations were founded when “their” townships were in boom times, when there was a significant risk to their patch and the populace was there to support them. In several cases now the risk has long disappeared, the population has shrunk and they now compete with the local volunteer service for personnel.
Again the old guard won’t accept nor do what is in the best interests of those liable to pay the ESL.
Any sector reform should not just be about cost savings. It should also delve into better usage of existing public monies. It will require more than just the will of the government of the day.
The sector clearly cannot reform itself. It does not have the motivation or one would suggest, even the capacity to look within and provide modern solutions to a modern South Australia.
It will require the parties to be dragged to the table kicking and screaming and have reform forced upon them. If the government of the day is serious about reforming the sector they will need to employ a team of people not bound by the creeds of our past in order to be progressive and deliver a workable model for our future.
One can only imagine the possibilities if our public monies were being spent in an effective manner now. Would the concessions for the ESL have to be removed and could the pain being felt by so many in our communities be avoided?