As a journalist, I find it increasingly hard to get the facts for stories. Government departments, big companies and politicians these days react to reporters in two ways:

They either issue a media release or put you up against a liaison officer (spin doctor).

This they do in the hope that you will swallow it all hook, line and sinker. Some journalists, overworked and pushed by deadlines regurgitate this information verbatim, much to the delight of those pedaling a one sided point of view. I don’t.

Of all the slick media maestros I’ve dealt with in recent times the RFS ranks way up there with some of the best. 

Here is how they operate along with a few tips for volunteers who need to get their message across to the general public.

The RFS structure wants only ‘good news’ stories in the media that are self serving. This means that they can expand their empire and continue to receive massive funding. They need to muzzle the humble volunteer who is likely to tell the truth. Of course, they don’t publically state this. That’s why only salaried media officers are allowed to speak to the press and the volunteers are silenced by the rule book under ‘operational procedures’.  Frustrated captains who speak out can be quietly ‘counseled’ with veiled threats of lack of promotion, withdrawal of assets, brigade amalgamation and being sent to ‘Coventry’ by not receiving call-outs. So scared are some brigades of retribution that I have to resort to quotes from retired captains to get the real story into the media. 

 There are however ways around the RFS media smokescreen so that the real story is exposed. The best way for the volunteer is to join the VFFA (please click to read more). This will ensure protection from vilification if you make statements to the media.

In my experience, when incidents of intimidation are raised, the bureaucrats backoff. Indeed, individuals who take them on are treated with a degree of grudging respect. One such case involved a volunteer who reported to me that in the Snowy Mountains, the National Parks people were nick-named “The National Sparks and Wildfire Association”. I wrote it up for the paper and the named volunteer involved was carpeted by Fire Control. A phone call to them was all that was needed to have them back-peddling. 

I’d encourage all volunteers to tell their stories to the press in the interest of truth and accuracy but, to be effective you will need to become media savvy.

Here’s how:

  • Always jot down the points you want to make before you go on air or TV as interviewers can get you off track.
  • Try to take the initiative and steer the discussion towards the points you want to make.
  • Speak clearly, pause between sentences and use a minimum of words.
  • Be entertaining – talk back radio is all about ratings so you must not be boring.
  • Ask the interviewer questions. This gets you on the front foot and in control.

It does get lonely out there but if you tell it like it is you may be able to change things and save lives. Your status will also rise as those who are too scared to take on the establishment will admire you for having a go. What’s more, it is great fun to see the spin doctors squirm.                                                

The only way change will be effected in bushfire management is through individuals speaking out against a system that has become highly politicized and inwards looking – a structure that ignores the basic principles and puts homes, lives and property at risk.  

No wonder there are about 1,000 "whiteshirts" with salaries that take up 36% of the RFS budget. A large proportion of paid RFS staff process development applications for buildings and subdivisions in bushfire prone land. If there was adequate mosaic hazard reduction, most "whiteshirts" would be out of a job.

To read more about the VFFA please click

Plate 1  Flames 24m high in Port Stephens 2010 – an area considered “insignificant to bushfire risk” in the bushfire service management plan. Different standards for risk force home builders to build to withstand catastrophic fires in the same location.

To hear brilliant bushfire scientist David Packham on ACA talking about Victoria 2009 and how since 1967, bushfire services have suppressed life saving facts, please click . Packham warned Victoria three days before 173 people died in 2009. If bushfire services contacted him for advice 173 people might be here with us today.