The “crippled” shortage of air firefighters due to staff reductions during the pandemic allegedly revealed a huge security gap that forced the union to take political and industrial action.
Wes Gareth, secretary of the aviation branch of the United Firefighters Union, said the downsizing had serious implications for the safety of Australian air travelers.
He said Airservices Australia had reduced the number of firefighters by 94 during the pandemic.
“As demand for airline services is now growing, this drastic downsizing has led to a lack of aviation firefighters to safely and effectively maintain the Australian Aviation Fire Rescue Network,” he said.
Mr Garrett said the number of firefighters at Sydney Airport had dropped from 94 to 77.
In Melbourne, the number fell from 91 to 65, and in the Gold Coast – from 31 to 21.
He said the situation is similar at many major Australian airports.
“As a result of staff reductions, our remaining firefighters are forced to work overtime to cover the changes needed to protect air travelers and airport workers,” he said.
“In some places, aviation firefighters are virtually unable to take leave, and they are exhausted, which in turn raises serious concerns about fatigue management.”
A spokesman for Airservices Australia told NCA NewsWire that some team members had decided to retire early.
Airservices is also actively recruiting, this year 48 firefighters will work, and next – 72.
“Our requirements for Aviation Fire Rescue personnel at Australia’s 27 busiest airports are regulated by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority and we continue to comply with all requirements for the Aviation Rescue Service at the national level,” the spokesman said.
Mr Garrett said the level of protection at Australian airports often did not meet regulatory requirements.
“Pre-Covid, Sydney and Melbourne ARFFS require 17 firefighters on duty. Today this figure is only 11, ”he said.
“With the current level of staff provided in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide, there are not enough air firefighters to control the fire, get out of the trucks, get on the crashed plane and provide timely assistance or rescue passengers.
“There is a shaky balance between our ability to save lives and the time it takes to respond.
“The response to the state of emergency is unpredictable – the time is critical. Aircraft intervention has a crucial time. It is a matter of minutes and seconds that can determine our ability to successfully intervene and save lives. ”
But an Airservices spokesman said Mr Gareth’s allegations were incorrect.
“We continue to comply with all service requirements at the national level to ensure the safety of airlines, airports and people who travel,” they said.
The union has launched a new campaign called “Three minutes to live – save our sky” to urgently draw attention to this issue.
The title depicts aviation firefighters who have only three minutes to respond before aviation fuel fire enters the cabin.
Mr Garrett said the campaign was aimed at all political parties running in the federal election.
The union is calling for an urgent review of Australia’s compliance with international aviation safety rules. She wants to eliminate the shortage of aviation firefighters and opposes the privatization of aviation firefighting at remote and regional airports.
After disrupting talks with businesses that began last October, Mr Garrett said aviation firefighters had also voted in favor of taking protective production action.
“Aviation firefighters have exhausted the rest of the leave, provided list flexibility outside the agreement with our businesses and accepted pay in vacation time, not wages – all to help Airservices cope with the economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic,” he said.
“Aviation services have also deprived 94 firefighters of their services through a pension incentive scheme, and this has negatively affected our ability to fully staff aviation firefighters at many stations across the country.”
Over the past five years, firefighters have increased wages by an average of 1.2% per year, while inflation has averaged 1.8% per year.
“Airservices is now proposing an increase of just 0.95 percent in the first year, with no clear forecast of wage increases in the two and third years,” Mr Garrett said.
“Our members say that’s enough, and we’re pushing for a pay raise that matches, not exceeds, the cost of living.”
Mr Garrett said the protected industrial action would begin with firefighters not responding to corporate emails and refusing to wear official uniforms in the line of duty, except for personal protective clothing.
“Aviation firefighters also impose restrictions on the distribution of overtime work, requiring Airservices to cover any extra hours by recalling an additional firefighter for full shifts rather than regular firefighters who add extra hours to their shifts,” he said.
“Public safety is always our top priority, and our protective industrial actions will not jeopardize the safety of air travelers.”
A Airservices spokesman said the body was continuing to negotiate “in good faith” to reach a fair agreement that would be in line with the government’s policy with the public sector in the workplace.