A GROUP of volunteer firefighters have voiced a range of concerns ahead of the imminent split between Country Fire Authority volunteer firefighters and career staff.
From July 1, the CFA's career staff will merge with the Metropolitan Fire Brigade to form a new fire service called Fire Rescue Victoria.
On Monday, a group of CFA volunteers gathered near Creswick, north of Ballarat, Victoria, at Kingston Fire Station to discuss a range of issues.
The volunteers, just some of 54,000 across the state, voiced a raft of concerns.
These concerns mostly centred on 'the unknown' - from leadership questions after the resignation of their Chief Officer, to being left in the dark about how the new structure will work, concerns about boundary changes and the impact it is all having on morale.
Leonards Hill Fire Brigade captain Marc Dankers said he and many other volunteers' concerns were based on the fact they felt 'sidelined'.
He said while the government was quick to praise volunteer firefighters when they travelled to New South Wales or to the east of the state during the summer bushfires, they felt they had not been properly listened to.
"We feel like we have been stabbed in the back. It's just unbelievable," he said.
While the legislation passed last year and FRV will become operational on July 1, Mr Dankers said the government needed to "be honest with volunteers".
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He said when the process began in 2016, volunteers were assured of a number of promises - though some have since been broken.
Among these promises was that the CFA would return to be a fully volunteer organisation, though the volunteers said this promise had been broken with FRV officers to be seconded back to run CFA operations.
It is still not clear exactly what this will look like.
Meanwhile, another point of contention is that FRV staff seconded back to the CFA are proposed to wear FRV uniforms, which volunteers believe will affect morale if the CFA is seen to be run by a different organisation.
Mr Dankers also said the way FRV was being marketed as a "new, modern fire and rescue service that is well equipped for the 21st century" was simply disrespectful in light of the hard work of thousands of volunteers across the state.
He said the discontentment had been exacerbated by losing yet another "trusted leader" late last week.
Mr Dankers said Chief Officer Steve Warrington was a "a man that [they] trusted", who had stood up for the volunteer service.
These sentiments were reiterated by other volunteers, including Lieutenant at Daylesford Fire Brigade, Glenn Webster.
Mr Webster said Victoria deserved the best fire service - which it already has in the CFA, through which volunteers have served their communities for many years.
"We are our community. The community is in us," he said.
"They say if something isn't broken, don't try to fix it. Our CFA is not broken, so leave us alone to do what we do.
"Victoria is very well served by the commitment of CFA volunteers and the last four years has felt like death by 1000 cuts to us.
"We're told one thing and something else happens. This is just another example of running down the morale of the people who make it the CFA."
He said if this morale continued to be reduced, then volunteers would leave in droves.
If CFA volunteers were to quit, this would affect not only the fire response, but the wider emergency response as volunteers drop their work or jump from their beds in the middle of the night to respond to an incident when their pager sounds.
In Daylesford, for example, brigade members are trained to road accidents and structure fires.
"Then who's going to be there when there are fires? Are they going to start paying more and more and more firefighters? We, the volunteers, cost the state nothing," Mr Webster said.
"We do it for the love of our community. And that love is getting tested very sorely at the moment and we don't understand why - when the public views us with respect and politicians don't."
Firefighter Peter Collocott, of Newlyn-Dean brigade, said the lack of communication was worrying.
"They've had years to organise it and nothing has been shared yet, and now it's only two days away," he said.
Many of the firefighters in attendance on Monday had travelled from the area to respond to the summer bushfires.
"The commitment level is very high. If we want to remain part of the CFA as an active and functional organisation - communication is key.
"If you don't know what's going on, you're not engaged, and if you're not engaged then our community suffers, and that's not a good thing."
Darryl Williams, a Lieutenant at Newlyn-Dean, said the unknown was concerning - he said volunteers didn't know if they were going to be pushed aside on a fire ground, if their training would be dictated to them or if they would be able to progress up the chain to become incident controllers.
He said the importance of volunteers from communities who serve their communities was that local knowledge was integral to an efficient fire response - as only a local knows the terrain, wind patterns, the back roads and of any communication black spots.
Ron Head, who is first lieutenant at Kingston Fire Brigade and also the President of the Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria Council for District 15 said he had great concerns about what was happening.
"Why change something that works so well," he said.
Among his concerns is talk about changing the boundaries of some areas so they fall under FRV, which would change the response area for volunteers.
"We want the community out there to support us in our fight," he said.
"Get in touch with members of parliament. Get involved and support us because we need it. We can't do it on our own."
Minister for Police and Emergency Services, Lisa Neville, said volunteers were the lifeblood of communities.
"This is about strengthening the CFA and supporting all of our firefighters who do an incredible job each and every day keeping Victorians safe.
"We're getting on and delivering changes that were not only put forward at the election and voted for by Victorians, they also passed the Parliament a year ago."
She said during February and March, the government had hosted engagement workshops with 1330 volunteers.
"Our legislation enshrines in law the ongoing role of volunteer firefighters and the requirements upon the CFA to continue to support, train and retain volunteers.
"For the majority of volunteers, nothing will change under FRV - as a strengthened volunteer firefighting CFA, they'll continue to provide a valuable service to their communities, including vital day to day support as well as surge capacity for campaign or other major fire events."
Last week the government announced an investment of $126 million for the CFA, to be put towards critical training and equipment.