WIMMERA fire brigades say the Country Fire Authority's stricter enforcing of training regimes is deterring volunteers from continuing their duties.
As brigades prepare for the summer months, leaders say the new approach could mean residents choose not to volunteer with the fire authority and respond to nearby emergencies off their own back.
Maurice Dumesny, of Laharum, represents District 17 at Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria. He said the CFA piloted an annual review at brigades across the state, including brigades in the Wimmera, this year.
He alleges the CFA is pressing brigades to lower their membership lists.
"As the managers go around, they will be looking at brigade capabilities and how many members they actually need for their brigade," he said.
"A lot of brigades have large numbers of members, but when they drill down into it, there is only a very low number that actually turn out to fires. I think they're putting pressure on the brigades to drop those numbers off.
"I don't think it's warranted. When we have some of these larger fires, those members who don't turn out regularly will always put their hand up to go away on a strike team on a deployment away, and they're always there to help out when we have large fires in our own backyard. "
Mr Dumesny said the Laharum brigade had more than 60 volunteers and about 25 helped out regularly. He said the remaining members made themselves available for other major jobs.
District 17 operations officer Craig Brittain said there was no directive from the CFA for brigades to reduce their volunteer numbers. He confirmed the authority launched an annual brigade review pilot in 2019.
"In fact, we are working hard to increase our active operational membership," he said. "In order to do this, we need to ensure our brigade records accurately reflect the operational status of each member so we can focus efforts to the areas of most need.
"(The district) has over 2600 volunteers listed as operational members, however we believe the true figure to be closer to 1000 operational members when we take into account members who no longer regularly respond to fire and emergencies.
"We are satisfied that this cohort of active operational volunteers provides sufficient capacity to deal with any large-scale emergency, however it is clear that we have more members listed as operational than would potentially deploy to an emergency."
Brigades concerned about volunteer losses
Each CFA volunteer must complete an annual vehicle entrapment drill to prepare for a possible burn-over, and a 20-minute online tree hazard awareness course every three years. They are also required to undertake minimum skills training before attending an incident.
Mr Brittain said the tests were necessary and aimed to improve volunteers' safety. He said the tests ensured volunteers were covered by the CFA's injury compensation provisions.
Green Lake captain Cam Mibus said the burn-over test had been in place for more than a decade, and the tree hazard awareness course began three years ago.
"It's been asked of all members but it was never enforced. Each brigade would run a session for members to turn up and do the training, but if only a quarter of them completed, it that was fine," he said.
"Only in the last three months the chief (officer, Steve Warrington) has said every member has to do (the training) and if they don't, they're not allowed on the fire truck."
Mr Mibus said he was worried his brigade's member numbers would be "reduced dramatically".
"A lot of them will still to fires on their property, next door, nearby or a family they know in a private vehicle," he said.
"They're sick of the top end of CFA dictating what volunteers can and can't do, so they'll leave and do their own thing."
Mr Dumesny said some volunteers had already declared they were not prepared to do the tests.
"They will be made non-operational come the fire danger period next month," he said.
"Down the track, we're going to have the Fit for Duty (test) for firefighters - each year firefighters will have to do a short exercise and get a medical from their doctor proving they're fit enough to be a volunteer.
"There is cause for alarm that some people may drop off because it's getting too rigorous just to be a volunteer. The CFA has spent money training up these people and they will just walk away."
Mr Dumesny said 765 of District 17's 2667 volunteers had passed necessary tests ahead of the fire danger period.
Grampians Group officer Robert Kelm said at least two volunteers told him, only in the past week, they would not do the training.
"(Fewer volunteers) means extra work for the ones who do turn out," he said. "We were at a meeting in Horsham on Thursday night and (we heard) they're expecting to lose about 30,000 volunteers across the state."
Laharum brigade captain Luke Dumesny said the mandatory tests put extra pressure on incident controllers during operations.
"They need to know which members have done all three elements," he said. "If a member hasn't done the tests, controllers should tell them to leave the ground. You've got to tell the community they can't come because they haven't done the training."
Luke Dumesny suggested the tests run concurrently so volunteers only needed to sit them every three years.
Mr Brittain said the CFA was pleased with the progress District 17 members had made through the two training modules to date.
"We expect many more to complete the training in the coming weeks," he said.
"Fit for Duty was a health and wellbeing pilot in the south-west region of Victoria - the results of which are currently being reviewed. A decision is yet to be made on what elements of that program will be implemented, who it will apply to and when it will be implemented."
The Grampians group's comments come after the state government passed reforms in June to combine the Metropolitan Fire Brigade with paid Country Fire Authority staff to create Fire Rescue Victoria, with the CFA becoming volunteer-only.
Maurice Dumesny said District 17 would not receive any full-time paid firefighters as part of the changes.
"We originally thought Horsham may be a possibility, but it doesn't have a large turnout of fires every year so its probably not warranted up here at this stage," he said.
A spokeswoman for the CFA's District 17 said it hadn't been confirmed yet when the fire danger period would start for the region.