‘Vigilante firefighter league forming across rural Victoria amid fears authorities won’t stop blazes’ is the headline from the Victorian Herald Sun, (28 August 2014) and I was alerted to this by a discussion on the LInkedIN Group ‘Emergency Management Australia’.

The story says

“Rural land holders are spending up to $15,000 each to “armour up” with fire trucks, radios and protective clothing so they can form teams to beat the CFA and police to a threatening blaze before it gets out of control…

Since the Black Saturday Royal Commission, the CFA has declared its top priorities are to protect human life and communicate information to the public.

That means that during some battles, trucks have been on standby near homes and townships, while livestock, paddocks, sheds and fences are left without CFA protection.

Daraweit Guim farmer Tom McDonell lost 9000 sheep during the February Mickleham-Kilmore blaze and said the emotional impact had been traumatic.

Mr McDonell was stopped by authorities from returning to his smouldering property and said the CFA’s failure to also protect farming infrastructure and land had left businesses in a “dire” financial state…”

In the LinkedIN discussion a commentator says ‘Under the CFA Act, it is illegal to form a firefighting organisation outside the CFA framework’.

The Country Fire Authority Act 1958 (Vic) s 26 says

No association of persons shall operate as a fire brigade in the country area of Victoria unless it is first registered and its officers and members enrolled in accordance with this Act, and no persons so operating without such registration and enrolment shall have any powers or privileges or the benefit of any immunity conferred by this Act.

‘Brigade’ is defined as ‘a brigade registered by the Authority…’  So s 26 says

‘No association of persons shall operate as a fire brigade registered by the Authority…’   Section 26 does not say it is an offence to operate an unregistered brigade, just that any such brigade does not enjoy any powers, privileges or immunities.

This is consistent with s 107A which says

(1) A person must not use any name, title or description to imply an association with the Authority, without the written authority of the Authority.

(2) A person must not represent that the person is associated with the Authority unless such an association exists.

(3) A person must not impersonate an officer of the Authority or a member or volunteer.

(4) A person must not use any insignia described or set out in the regulations in any manner contrary to the manner set out in the regulations without the written authority of the Authority.

The Act provides a penalty of 6o penalty units (or 60 x $147.61 (Monetary Units Act 2004 (Vic)) = $8856.60) for each of these offences.

There is no need for legal authority to fight a fire (Stephens v Stephens (1970) 92 WN(NSW) 810); if a fire starts on my property of course I can attempt to extinguish it and equally if my friends and neighbours want to join me, they can.   Not only is this consistent with resilience any law to the contrary would be impracticable and unenforceable.

So what the CFA Act says, in my view, both in s 26 and 107A, is that one must not operate a brigade or purport in any way to be associated with the CFA unless one is actually associated with the CFA.  The so called ‘vigilante firefighter league’ would not commit any offence provided they in no way suggested that they were associated with the CFA.

If I’m wrong about that, then the issue is still ‘what is a brigade?’ In an earlier post, on the prohibition on private fire brigades in NSW (‘What is a NSW fire brigade?’  (27 August 2014)) I said:

I infer that a contractor who’s providing emergency services for a single client and who’s willing to accept the authority of Fire and Rescue NSW if and when they respond, is not operating a fire brigade.  A contractor who establishes an offsite ‘station’ and who has a multiple client base and agrees to provide emergency services that would involve travelling from their station to their various clients in response to an emergency call, would be conducting a fire brigade and would certainly be doing so if they had some agreement or expectation, or promised their clients that they, and not Fire and Rescue NSW would take charge of operations at any particular fire.

Similar reasoning might apply here.  A group of farmers who agree to help each other out in a mutual aid arrangement are not, in my view, a brigade.  It may be different if they had a central shed or station, detailed administration with chain of command, logos and the like.  The story says ‘Negotiations are underway with sponsors including insurance companies and equipment suppliers’ which may, depending upon the terms, make them look like a brigade, but, on the other hand, an insurer that offers a premium discount because people are taking proactive measures to reduce their risk may just be making an actuarially sound judgement.

In any event these farmers will be subject to the CFA Act and the powers of CFA officers at the scene of a fire.  For example s 30(1)(g) says:

If a person is interfering, by his or her presence or otherwise, with the operations of any brigade or group of brigades or is in or on any land, building or premises that is burning or threatened by fire, the Chief Officer may—

(i)     order the person to withdraw and may include in the order a direction to immediately leave any area affected by the fire by the safest and shortest route; and

(ii)     in the event that the person fails or refuses to withdraw—remove the person or direct a member of a fire brigade or a police officer present at the fire to remove the person;.

That could well be applied to these volunteers if it is felt they are interfering with CFA operations.

There is no doubt that members of the vigilante firefighter league would enjoy no immunity or other privileges; that is they would have no specific powers to allow them to operate, they would not enjoy statutory immunity from liability for actions taken in good faith to deal with a fire and they would not enjoy statutory rights to compensation.   Equally they would not have obligations to provide fire fighting services or to maintain neighbourhood safer places.  Unlike the CFA, that owes obligations to the entire Victorian community, they would be entitled to focus their resources on protecting their own interests and not on what, in a broader view, is the ‘community’ interest.

Interesting times indeed.