Photo credit: Eaton-Australind VFRS
Much needed amendments were made to regulations earlier this year to better support our Western Australian firefighters.
Greater support is now available for firefighters who are affected by cancer and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of being on call to help and protect their communities. With an exception.
You are NOT protected by PTSD Presumption if you are a volunteer firefighter.
The amendments are only of benefit to career (paid) firefighters.
History of PTSD Presumption in WA
If you are unaware of PTSD Presumption in Western Australia (WA), here is a rundown.
The Workers’ Compensation and Injury Management Amendment Regulations 2021 established a rebuttable presumption of work-related injury for PTSD contracted by ambulance workers, which took effect from 1 February 2022.
In May 2023, the amendments to the Workers Compensation and Injury Management Bill 2023 came into effect after calls from frontline firefighters, volunteers, associations and unions to enhance protection to firefighters affected by cancer and PTSD.
As a result, the Workers’ Compensation and Injury Management Amendment Regulations 2023 and Workers’ Compensation and Injury Management Amendment Regulations 2023 (No.2) now covers presumption of work-related injury for PTSD contracted by career (paid) firefighters and Department of Fire and Emergency Services communications systems officers.
This means that, for example, if a career firefighter sustains PTSD they will not have the burden of needing to prove that their job of attending emergency incidents significantly contributed to their condition when making a workers' compensation claim.
Did you know that volunteer firefighters perform exactly the same duties and attend the same incidents as career (paid) firefighters?
No Beep Test, No Perks
Volunteers who work tirelessly in emergency situations to rescue and protect the residents of WA, save the Government more than 2 billion dollars per year. And in some areas of the State, including the City of Karratha and Broome, there are no career (paid) firefighters.
On 21 September 2023, The Labor Government including the Minister for Emergency Services, in collaboration with The Greens, voted 19/10 against the amendment (proposed by the Opposition) to extend presumptive PTSD protections to our valuable emergency service volunteers.
While it is acknowledged and appreciated that the amendments to the regulations support paid ambulance officers and career firefighters, shockingly there is no protection for the 26,000 individuals who willingly devote their time and effort to respond to emergencies across the State without payment for the work they do.
This injustice also impacts families, friends and work colleagues who are exposed to the side effects of PTSD in varying degrees because sadly, they often see first hand the impact the role as a first responder has on their loved one's mental wellbeing.
Volunteers are angry. They feel they are being treated in a sub-standard manner to what a career (paid) firefighter is.
Did you know volunteers respond to 93% of emergency calls in WA?
What Reasons are there to Exclude Volunteer First Responders?
Emergency service volunteers are disheartened and their family and friends are shocked by the exclusion.
As a result, the following volunteer emergency service association presidents (who represent more than 26,000 emergency service volunteers in Western Australia), united to discuss the reasons behind the verdict:
Volunteer Fire and Rescue Services Association of WA
Volunteer Marine Rescue of Western Australia
Volunteer Fire and Emergency Services Association of Western Australia
Association of Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades Western Australia
SES Volunteer’s Association of Western Australia
Our understanding is that the vote against an amendment to the regulations is because:
Career (paid) firefighters are potentially exposed to more trauma than a volunteer
the demand for, and the services offered, by the Department of Fire and Emergency Services have been deemed sufficient and
career (paid) firefighters are covered for the presumptive legislation under the Workers Compensation Act. Volunteers are covered under a separate insurance policy that is different to workers compensation, which covers presumptive cancers. So far no claims have been rejected.
The Volunteer Fire and Rescue Services Association was informed by Mathew Dixon, Senior Policy Officer Emergency Services, that the Government considered that the process for a claim for PTSD under presumptive legislation, will require a volunteer to have to undergo a psychiatrist evaluation, which is a higher level of assessment than the mental health covered under the existing insurance policy.
Unanimously, WA's volunteer emergency service associations believe the reasons behind the ruling to exclude volunteer first responders is unacceptable with their being a conflict in legislation.
Previously, volunteers were not considered employees and that is why there was a separate insurance policy established for injuries sustained during volunteering activities.
Now volunteers are considered as employees under the Work Health and Safety Act 2020. Shouldn't they also now be eligible for workers' compensation?
Together, we have been strongly arguing that volunteer first responders need to be covered by the same PTSD presumption, since they attend the same incidents as their paid colleagues.
A letter was sent to the Minister for Emergency Services, Hon Stephen Dawson MLC, on 11 October 2023 voicing the volunteer emergency services associations united concerns and call for change. A copy of the letter is available to read below and explains in further detail the reasons why we believe the decision was made for the exclusion, and why the regulations must be modified.
No Intention of Letting Go
On 3 November 2023 the presidents and representatives of WA's volunteer emergency service associations met again to deliberate the Hon Stephen Dawson MLC response, dated 31 October 2023 which can be read in full:
Because not all of the associations had received the letter prior to the meeting, the decision was made to share the Minister for Emergency Service's reply to all members for consideration, and to reconvene late November to form a strategy on what action to take moving forward.
The volunteer emergency services associations would like it known that we are working as a team towards finding a solution and have no intention of letting the matter go.
Voice Your Opinion & Show Support for Your Vollies
We would like to invite everyone, including emergency service personnel, to have a say on this topic and to show your support for WA's volunteers.
Importantly, we would like to encourage those in the lives of first responders to speak up and share your thoughts and experiences. We understand that PTSD is not limited to the person suffering directly, and how family and friends can experience the side effects.
If you would like to voice your opinion or have a suggestion that you would like considered for the strategy towards finding a resolution, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Your full name
Your contact details
Who you are, for example:
If you are a volunteer, where / who for
Your relationship (if any) to a first responder
Your feedback, opinion and suggestions
Your email will be shared with the other volunteer emergency service associations, and suggestions will be taken into consideration with strategy planning and may be presented to the Minister for Emergency Services.
If you would like to show your support for the Volunteer Fire and Rescue Services Association of WA and the work we do to champion our firefighters, a donation can be made here.