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"Unsuitable" McFetridge moves to hose down SES rift

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Opposition emergency services spokesman Duncan McFetridge has moved to hose down a rift with State Emergency Service volunteers, after an incensed social media post from the Sturt SES branch – since removed – deemed him “unsuitable to represent” emergency workers in government or opposition.

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The Facebook post placed by the Sturt branch followed criticism of response times by McFetridge and an anonymous volunteer in The Advertiser last week, after severe storms prompted a major spike in callouts.

McFetridge also critiqued the call-and-dispatch system on his own social media posts.

The Sturt SES social media site – in excerpts read into Hansard yesterday by Emergency Services Minister Peter Malinauskas – sheeted home the “negative press” to McFetridge, saying: “Sturt SES volunteers can no longer sit back without voicing their opinions.”

Despite suggesting a rift with sections of the CFS Volunteers Association, it said SES workers work “passionately side by side with MFS and volunteers of the CFS on a daily basis” and “our frustration stems solely from Duncan McFetridge’s actions”.

“We are extremely disappointed that on Wear Orange Wednesday, a day of national recognition for SES volunteers, McFetridge chose to attack those same volunteers,” it said.

“SES volunteers worked tirelessly through the day and night, only to receive criticism from the same person that should be highlighting their amazing efforts.”

The post alleged McFetridge had “shown his true colours as a puppet of the CFS Volunteers’ Association and can no longer be considered as a suitable representative in opposition or government”.

“We are irretrievably disappointed,” the post said, adding that the “discrediting of SES membership for political gain is abhorrent” and that the shadow minister’s “uneducated and bias (sic) comments in the media and through his small group of social media followers aimed at the SES have seen many volunteers question their worth in light of his criticisms”.

His comments, it concluded, “have only proven his unsuitability to represent them”.

The post has since been removed. It’s understood that the CFS Volunteers’ Association made a direct complaint to the Sturt SES about the content.

McFetridge told InDaily the assertions – and others in the deleted post – were “pretty outrageous [and] it wouldn’t have taken much for someone with a legal bent to have a look and say ‘these guys should be careful what they say’”.

However, he added, “I’m a big boy, I’ve got a thick hide”.

He said his comments were not intended to denigrate individual volunteers, saying “I’m here to do what I can to support them”.

“My whole aim has been to expose the fact they’ve been run ragged by a system that could be significantly improved,” he said.

“That’s why I’m rather puzzled as to where they’re coming from.”

McFetridge has sent a statement to be published in the SES magazine, alluding to “recent media about the response times to emergency incidents in South Australia, particularly focused on the response to the wild weather last week”.

“Unfortunately many volunteers, particularly SES volunteers, took these remarks as a personal reflection on their effort. Nothing could be further from the truth,” he wrote.

“Can I put on the record… that I and all South Australians who have any knowledge of the sacrifices SES volunteers, and their families, make for their communities is priceless and given freely with both passion and energy. I hope that you all realise that we all value your input, your professionalism and your dedication to duty.”

He said “to continue to see the number of times volunteers drop everything, leave home and family or leave their workplace to respond to a pager, then to be tasked to go long distances or to jobs with other services only to be ‘stop called’, or get to the job to find a pile of sawdust or some other clear scene, is not only personally frustrating but is devaluing the sacrifice you all make”.

“This is my concern, to protect you and your units from fatigue and frustration,” he wrote.

“At no time was I critical of any individual or Unit, nor would I ever be. I am, however, very critical of a system that sends you out to a job that can be handled by others who are closer and so usually faster.”

Malinauskas told InDaily that with more than 15,000 “passionate” volunteers across CFS and SES “there’ll always be a difference of views about systems”.

“Our job as policy-makers is to take that information and consider it in the context of what’s the best process… and try to make sure we’ve got the best system to suit South Australian conditions”.

He warned McFetridge’s “political opportunism” potentially undermined confidence in the system and volunteer morale.

“All I hope is that he learns from this… when he speaks up as a leader in this area he needs to do it in a way that doesn’t undermine the volunteers – not from my perspective, but from theirs.”

CFS Volunteers’ Association vice-president Roger Flavell said “we work together on all sorts of jobs all over the place and there’s no issue between CFS and SES volunteers as such”.

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