The State Government’s budget cuts to employee-related expenses in the NSW Fire and Rescue budget have forced the short-term closures of the Leichhardt and Balmain fire stations’.
The closures have outraged Greens politicians and community advocates alike, with Balmain Greens MP Jamie Parker taking aim at the government for risking public safety.
“When the public service is attacked, public services immediately suffer and we’re seeing the results of the Liberal government’s savage cuts. When there is not enough staff, the station can’t operate and that puts local residents at risk,” he said.
“The Liberal government is slashing employee-related expenses within the fire department by $64 million over the next four years, meaning stations will increasingly be forced to temporarily close to save money on overtime.”
Leichhardt Mayor Darcy Byrne from the Labor Party called on the government to resolve the staffing and budget crisis.
“I have asked the NSW Government to provide an explanation as to why – in view of greatly increased fire service levies – they are unable to provide basic staffing levels for a local fire station that has been open for well over a century,” he said.
“The levy on our ratepayers is going through the roof while fire stations are shutting their doors. Fire stations at Leichhardt and Balmain are critical to community safety and the State Government must move swiftly to ensure we have the staff we need to protect our residents.”
Jim Casey, State Secretary of the Fire Brigade Employees Union, said it made financial sense to cover firefighter expenses.
“Firefighters are extremely concerned by the government’s cuts that are leading to station closures. It would save money for the State Government in the long run to cover the expenses of both community and firefighters safety,” he said.
“By taking resources off the road, inevitably we will see response times blow out and people will wait longer for help and tragedy will occur.”
Leichhardt and Balmain fire stations’ were closed for a period over five days in early March. Two broad reasons caused the closures: Fire and Rescue NSW (FRNSW) refused to provide relief for firefighters on leave, and FRNSW moved the fire stations fire truck to “cover a hole” in another district that had forced closure.
A spokesperson for Fire and Rescue NSW said the forced closures did not at any time put residents of the inner west in harm’s way.
“It is standard practice for FRNSW to move fire crews and vehicles around Sydney to maintain response coverage when stations are unattended due to major emergencies, training exercises and bushfire hazard reduction operations,” said the spokesperson.
“On any given day, up to 20 Sydney fire stations can be offline without compromising community safety. This did not mean the city was unprotected. FRNSW maintains a surge capacity which enables resources to be moved to areas of greatest risk, while maintaining response coverage in other areas.”
The O’Farrell Government’s budget in June last year imposed across-the-board cuts to the public sector wages bill by 1.2 per cent, with FRNSW subject to a 1.75 per cent wage cut. Employee-related expenses in the FRNSW budget will be cut by $7.6 million in 2012/13, and by a total of up to $64 million over the next four years.