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Monday, 31 October 2011
Page: 12192


Ms PARKE (Fremantle) (13:24): I rise in support of the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Amendment (Fair Protection for Firefighters) Bill 2011 and the provisions the bill makes to ensure that the men and women of Australia's fire and emergency services are buffered to some degree against the financial and personal hardships that can result from working in the extreme and dangerous conditions they face on our behalf. By amending the bill, the government will remove the legislative barriers that currently obstruct access to workers compensation arrangements for approximately 2,800 firefighters, predominantly in the ACT, and will align the Commonwealth legislation with standards afforded to firefighters across Australian states and territories, standards which are provided as a right in countries with similar fire incidence profiles, like the United States and Canada.

When we think about the victims of fire, our thoughts turn to those who tragically lose their lives as a consequence of smoke inhalation or heat exposure. We do not think as often about the firefighters themselves, who can be affected by cancer decades after being exposed to the toxic carcinogens released through fire. The government understands that Australian firefighters have a higher rate of cancer than the general population, a finding that can only be attributed to the exposure of firefighters to carcinogens found in both structural and environmental fires. I was surprised to learn that even in bushfires, firefighters are exposed to cancer-causing substances such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and dioxins in the smoke. A 2008 study by Cornell University found that thermal decomposition of products such as wire coatings, rubber and vinyl tubing, in addition to chemicals generally released from brush forest and tyre blazes, significantly heightens the risk of breast cancer.

With the passage of this legislation, the government is ensuring that firefighters at risk of cancer will have ready access to workers compensation. This is really the least that can be done in terms of providing essential support at a time of significant distress to people who have given so much to our protection. As we look ahead, the climate science indicates a likely increase in the number and intensity of bushfires. That only reinforces the value of the government's work in better planning and coordination when it comes to fire avoidance and firefighting and the value of adequate protection, facilities and equipment for our firefighters.

In my own electorate of Fremantle, the federal government recently committed $1.5 million in partnership with the City of Cockburn to build a $3.7 million emergency services headquarters that will house both the Cockburn and South Coogee volunteer bushfire services. This is an incredibly welcome investment, especially in the context of the metropolitan bushfires that took more than 70 homes during Perth's last summer. My uncle and aunt's home was one of these.

Earlier this year the government established the Public Safety Mobile Broadband Steering Committee to investigate calls from the Fire and Emergency Service industry for a mobile broadband communications system. Such a system would allow for live streaming video from fire locations, tracking of biodata and live monitoring of the location of fire and emergency services vehicles and personnel. The most effective measure in ensuring the safety of firefighters, however, is to reduce the number of fires that require their involvement. The government is making a contribution in this area through a series of fire hazard reduction programs and, in the longer term, through the implementation of the clean energy future package. These reforms will work to slow the effects of climate change and greatly reduce the environmental factors fuelling an increase in fires through higher average global temperatures and prolonged drought.

In conclusion, the fair protection for firefighters bill is an eminently sensible piece of legislation that will ensure that the men and women of the fire and emergency services will be looked after and have access to workers compensation arrangements in the event that they are affected by cancer. What is more, through industry consultation, the government is working hard to make sure that firefighters have access to the services and equipment they need, and that we make a coordinated effort to reduced fires across Australia by tackling the causes, both natural and human, through legislation and education.

If a soldier experiences injury or post-traumatic stress after returning home from combat, there are support services and there is a financial safety net. If a police man or woman is injured or develops health issues in the course of their duties, there are provisions that will ensure that they get the help they need. With this bill we are ensuring that if firefighters develop health problems as a result of their work protecting lives and property in extremely hazardous circumstances, there is adequate and appropriate access to the financial support they will need. It is the very least we can do, it is timely and it is overdue. For all these reasons, I wholeheartedly support this bill. I commend the member for Melbourne, Mr Bandt, for bringing this legislation to parliament, and the government and the opposition for supporting it.