NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons (Image: AAP/Joel Carrett)

On Monday, Crikey wrote that the NSW fire service’s budget has been slashed since last year. To put it lightly, Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons disagrees.

“It is rubbish, it is misinformation, it’s being misrepresented and I think it’s being disgracefully misrepresented here today in these sorts of circumstances,” he said in a press conference.

Fitzsimmons added the organisation was “enjoying record budgets”, without really explaining how. 

So, who was right?

In our initial analysis, we only took into account the expenses budget. Fire and Rescue NSW (FRNSW) lost $12.9 million in expenses between 2018-19 and 2019-20, while the Office of NSW Rural Fire Services (NSW RFS) lost $26.7 million in expenses.

The $12.9 million cut to FRNSW stirred heated debates in parliament, with politicians understandably concerned about reduced firefighting capabilities. 

If we take into account both expenses and capital expenditure, the difference between the last two budgets is even greater — $41.4 million for for FRNSW and $76.6 million for NSW RFS.

That’s a total of $118 million. 

In August this year, member for Holsworthy Melanie Gibbons said in NSW parliament that “the government is investing a whopping $1.7 billion in emergency services”, and pointed to “$826 million in Fire and Rescue NSW alone”. 

But this is still a decrease from the $867.6 million FRNSW received in 18-19.

The office of the NSW State Emergency Service (SES) did see an increase of $33.2 million in 19-20, but SES volunteers don’t attend fire jobs.

 Fire & Rescue NSW (FRNSW)Office of the NSW Rural Fire Service (NSW RFS)
2018-2019 budget (revised)  
Expenses$787.2m$551m
Capital expenditure$80.4m$66.3m
Total$867.6m$617.3m
2019-20 budget  
Expenses$774.3m$524.3m
Capital expenditure$51.9m$16.4m
Total$826.2m$540.7m
DIFFERENCE$41.4m$76.6m

Spokespeople for FRNSW said a $28.5 million drop in the 19-20 capital budget was mainly due to one-off funding in 18-19 for programs, aerial appliances and training props, totalling $34.4 million

The change in expenses was explained as a boost of $34.6 million in insurance in 18-19 after presumptive legislation was passed to compensate firefighters who develop specific cancers. The figure was higher in 18-19 to cover retrospective claims, and was then reduced in 19-20 based on revised estimates. 

Likewise, a spokesperson for the NSW RFS said there wasn’t a decrease in the 19-20 budget, but rather a one-off increase in the 18-19 budget thanks to $23.8 million for a training centre in Dubbo, a $26.3 million air tanker, and $21.5 million for a new headquarters in Homebush. That still leaves $5 million unaccounted for.

But these “one-off” boosts are far from uncommon. FRNSW has previously received $23 million for a new headquarters in Greenacre, along with $16.5 million new fire stations and station upgrades, $16.8 million for firefighting vehicles, and $5 million for training props.

NSW RFS also received “one-offs” for air tanker trials and fire stations throughout 15-16/16-17. 

The takeaway? FRN NSW is not currently enjoying “record budgets”. The budget bounce happened last year. One-off investments dropped in 19-20, leaving a $118 million hole in the budget at a time when the services need it most.

Peter Fray

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Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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