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Here’s a plan to break Volunteer drought

By Anthony Bergin and Paul Barnes

With several of our emergency services fighting fires in eastern Australia, senator Jacqui Lambie is suggesting young Australians should be called up for duty with emergency services units across the country.

She wants a Senate inquiry to examine the idea of a national emergency service, not for the military but to encourage more young people to join the ranks of volunteers. She argues we need this to tackle what’s forecast as a greater demand for volunteers, with more frequent and extreme droughts, fires and floods.

Today’s generation “want to show up to a rally once a year and apparently that’s giving back”, the Tasmanian senator says. “That bothers me. It bothers me that kids today wouldn’t know a bloody sandbag, let alone a spade.”

Lambie is worried that the Country Fire Authority, the State Emergency Service and other voluntar­y organisations are struggling to attract recruits.

There are some positive moves afoot to address this issue. In March, for example, the NSW SES launched Volunteering Re­imagined, to include new categories of volunteering: spontaneous volunteers who contribute only when required, corporate volunteers, and community action teams — groups of locals in at-risk areas who have basic training to protect and support­ their commun­ities such as at times of major weather events. There are also SES cadet programs in second­ary schools.

But Lambie’s call for some fresh ideas around volunteering is timely and useful. The contrib­ution of volunteers to reducing losses from disasters is well recognised. But the practice of people being volunteers for decades has mostly disappeared.

Volunteers are central to effect­ive emergency response in Australia. However, it’s a real challenge to fill the ranks and some states are concerned that the average age of their volunteers is increasing.

We still have large numbers of young people not in education, employment or training and older unemployed workers who are less likely to find new employment. Many people who are willing to volunteer are reluctant to take the first step or are unsure about how to do so. So one measure is to ­create an emergency management volunteer program.

An EMVP would be a one-year program during which participants work in a volunteer organisation, gaining and practising skills applicable in emergencies, including in organisations active in the welfare and recovery side of emergency management.

The EMVP would give people an avenue to volunteer work but without demanding a long-term full-time commitment. Similar to the Australian Defence Force’s Gap Year program (which had 570 participants last year), but tailored for the emergency management sector, the program would pair indiv­id­uals with volunteer organ­isa­tions based on their interests and suitability. It would introduce a common national approach to the training of volunteers, which would enable them to contribute service cross-jurisdictionally.

While it would be desirable for volunteers to sample several organi­sations, that may not be so practical. They wouldn’t get a feel for any of them in just a short stint, and the resource implications would be challenging.

An EMVP also could assist in retraining long-term unemployed people of various ages. Participants might receive benefits at a higher rate than the Newstart ­Allowance. Some conditions of eligi­bility would be mandatory, such as not being in education, employment or training for six months before an application and being a recipient of Newstart support. It also might be viable to extend­ EMVP opportunities, with appropriate streams of activity, to people on disability pensions.

Further suitability criteria would be relevant, such as train­ability, fitness/health, working with children checks, and agreeing to a minimum number of years of service with volunteer groups after completion of the program.

The costs of an EMVP would depend on the number of pos­itions offered. But a pilot program offered to 1000 participants for a year is unlikely to cost more than $10m. That would cover a New­start supplement as an incentive for individuals to take up the ­program.

While there’s some possibility of the EVMP creating a rift between­ volunteers who don’t get paid and those who do, this can be managed by making it clear that the program is designed as a long-term training investment in human capital.

And the best person to champ­ion the EVMP? Former prime minister Tony Abbott would be a strong contender. He has been a longstanding volunteer with the NSW Rural Fire Service and has served as a surf lifesaver on ­Sydney’s northern beaches for many years. Abbott understands the impor­tance of a more resilient Austral­ian community through volun­teer­ing. His energy and enthusiasm could see him continue to contribute to public service.

Originally published by: The Australian on 19 Sep 2019