In the second of a two-part series on the problems within the SES, BEN SILVESTER investigates the alleged administrative dysfunction and chronic underfunding plaguing the service:
South-west State Emergency Service volunteers say the service is slowly degrading as a result of organisational dysfunction and long-term neglect with some smaller units a resignation or two away from being non-viable.
Part one of this series examined the administrative burden pushing volunteers out of the service. But former south-west operations manager Brendan Rasmussen said the administrative load being passed onto volunteers was a symptom of deeper structural problems within SES.
"I turn 64 this year and have worked high up in companies with tens of thousands of employees across several continents. The SES is the most administratively dysfunctional organisation I've worked in in my entire adult life. It can barely administer itself let alone administer volunteers," Mr Rasmussen said.
He said the organisation was overrun with bureaucracy.
"In my experience, head office in a well-run organisation should never be more than eight per cent of staff. I'd be interested to know how big SES' head office is compared to their operational people on the ground," he said.
An SES spokesperson confirmed head office staff made up more than 56 per cent of the organisation but said the "majority" of the 216 full time equivalent staff provided " direct services and support to VICSES volunteers".
Former Warrnambool unit controller Giorgio Palmeri said even though he had dedicated 13 years of his life to the SES, the state of the service left him little option than to quit.
"The organisation is f***ed and I'm glad to be out of it," he said.
Current volunteers said there was no end to the administrative issues they faced, but when they raised a problem they were met with silence.
"You can call and email all you want and there's no communication back," one senior volunteer said.
"We've had senior people from head office come and flat out lie about all these great things they were going to do and then just refuse to take phone calls when it didn't happen."
The SES spokesperson said the organisation had brought in a new operating model to "support the volunteer units", especially when it came to training. The senior volunteer called the new model "a dead set failure".
He said training a new volunteer up to the level of their colleagues previously took about six months, but under the new model it would take two to three years.
Several members said training standards had also been slipping as a result of red tape and under-resourcing.
"The degradation of training standards is a real worry," Mr Rasmussen said. "Five years ago there were eight senior trainers in the south-west, now there are two."
Mr Rasmussen said head office treated volunteers "like free public servants", expecting them to provide services for free that the salaried staff got paid for.
"Who is conducting the training? It's often not staff trainers, it's volunteers because they can do it for free," he said.
"Not only that, they're now saying they will no longer pay for the volunteers to do their Cert III or Cert IV accreditation because they 'might use it for something else'.
The SES spokesperson said modern OH&S requirements created extra administration, but argued the process was "necessary... to ensure the continued safety, assurance and compliance of our members". One senior volunteer said training had become a matter of "tick and flick" where the priority was ticking the box rather than ensuring competency.
"It degrades by the year, every year it gets worse and worse."
Mr Rasmussen said the final problem, compounding the others for country units, was a long-term lack of adequate funding.
Some south-west units don't have showers, or change rooms, or usable toilets, or heaters. The Cobden unit is run out of a 1903 dance hall. One member said the door the Heywood facility used to get its truck out "only works half the time".
"And Hamilton of course, being a major town, is run out of a bloody asbestos chook shed on the showgrounds," he said.
The SES spokesperson said the Hamilton facility "was a chook shed" a decade ago, but it had been renovated to "modernise and improve" it with new roller doors, vehicle bays and operational technology "to make it functional as an SES Unit". "Whilst this facility was not purpose built, it has been adapted to suit our services," the spokesperson said.
The volunteer said the old equipment and lack of facilities was a turn-off for new members and depressing for existing ones.
"Some volunteers might come back to the unit after a call out covered in blood and glass and they can't even have a shower, and the state government's just cut $13 million from our budget. It's just madness," he said.
A state government spokesperson denied $13 million had been cut from the SES.
The SES spokesperson said $6.5 million had been invested in south-west units "over the last number of years" but digging into the figures showed nearly $6 million of that was the new $4.9 million Port Fairy facility and $1 million for a new facility at Dunkeld.
The Standard understands the Dunkeld facility upgrade has been in the planning phase for at least five years with little to no progress. Several members said the Port Fairy upgrade concentrated millions into one facility while half a dozen others missed out.
"Port Fairy got $5 million for their new shed, but that was only because the politicians were there and the place was flooding. Perfect timing, they did it well. Meanwhile a couple of hundred grand would build us a magnificent shed, but apparently they can't afford it," one senior volunteer said.
Mr Rasmussen said Melbourne units were well funded by comparison, which made little sense operationally since Fire Rescue Victoria was responsible for rescue situations in the metro area.
"When we do road crash training we have to do things like chop up cars and smash windows. This creates a lot of mess and if you don't have a concrete hardstanding to train on the clean up process can take longer than preparing and conducting the training.
"We've been borrowing paddocks from local farmers to do our training."
The SES spokesperson said resourcing and equipping of each unit was based on its "capabilities", "history of operations" and "the local risk environment". "Metro areas result in approximately 70 per cent of VICSES requests for assistance and the only reason some Melbourne units will have more resources is based on their service delivery needs," the spokesperson said.
One volunteer said it was "getting harder and harder to replace people". "The members have just had a gutful... It's a real battle," he said.
Another volunteer said at the current rate some units would fold "within three years".
"If those units fold, then anyone who has an accident within 20 minutes' drive of that shed, which is now empty, they'll be dead before anyone else gets to them. That's the bottom line," he said.
The SES spokesperson denied any viability issue for regional units. "It is important to note that VICSES maintains a surge capacity, which can either be provided from neighbouring units if required, or deployed from other parts of the state," the spokesperson said.
Mr Rasmussen said head office had known about the issues "for a long time and have done nothing".
"I emailed the (Emergency Services Minister Jaclyn Symes) when I resigned explaining all of my concerns. I got a response back from one of the public servants, never got anything from the Minister's office.
"This Minister may go down in history as the one who was told there was a massive problem, and didn't do anything about it."
The Standard asked the Minister whether she had received Mr Rasmussen's email and what was being done to address the alleged problems. A spokesperson said emergency services played "a pivotal role in protecting communities and saving lives".
"We have always made sure VICSES volunteers are equipped with the resources they need to keep communities safe."