VMR's SOS for funding as need to replace vessel nears
THEY have been saving lives for the last 50 years but now a volunteer-based organisation is facing a fight of survival, caused by a lack of funding.
Volunteer Marine Rescue Association Queensland operates from sites throughout the country, with a base that has called Burnett Heads home since the 1970s.
But now the organisation is struggling to stay afloat due to limited government funding, with Burnett Heads base president Graham Kingston calling for action.
"COVID-19 has significantly restricted our fundraising capacity and, being a small community, that capacity is already limited," Dr Kingston said.
"But this situation has been building for a number of years.
"If it wasn't for the public, we wouldn't be here right now … extra money comes from community sponsorships but we have reached a point where sausage sizzles and pub raffles can no longer raise sufficient funding for operational costs and capital acquisition."
Unlike other emergency services such as the Rural Fire Service and State Emergency Service, VMRAQ volunteers are required to buy their own uniforms, as well as source funding for buildings, equipment and maintenance.
"In the beginning, (funding) was roughly 50 per cent of total costs faced, however the costs of compliance and capital acquisition have risen exponentially, to the point where government funding now contributes roughly 15 per cent," Dr Kingston said.
"The average lifespan of a standard vessel is just under 10 years and our current vessel is four years old, so in six years' time it will need a major refit, which will cost up to $600,000."
In addition, there is no legislation to protect marine rescue volunteers while they risk their lives to save others, a vast contrast to similar organisations like RFS and SES.
These factors are not only making the operation unsustainable but also deter potential volunteers from signing up.
Over the years, multiple reviews of the service have occurred, with the most recent being the Blue Water Review in 2018.
"It appeared to be gaining traction, however the recent bushfire season, subsequent royal commission and now COVID-19 have annihilated confidence that a sustainable future will be created," Dr Kingston said.
"We openly thank Minister Craig Crawford and Queensland Fire and Emergency Services staff who have displayed a high level of interest in our situation.
"They have fought hard and won increases in the level of government funding and their ongoing support is of the highest level, however the funding increases are incremental and allow us only to address operational issues, not the large capital injection required to make VMR sustainable."
With 35 volunteers at the Burnett Heads base, including five skippers and land-only staff, and with 80 per cent of volunteers spending their contact time in fundraising, a large monetary injection is the only viable option for the rescue service.
VMR is considering a new strategic plan and without the required funding it will mean the service will cease in three to five years.
"If we lost operational support in our areas, it would mean timely response just isn't possible and we would need to rely solely on water police in Hervey Bay and Gladstone," Dr Kingston said.
"Just last weekend we were out searching for the missing man all day, from 6am to midnight, and with three extra jobs and 17 crew members, it's a stretch to keep operations going.
"Assistance is critical to continue saving lives at sea."
Dr Kingston said VMR was hoping to become a single service with the Coast Guard as it would allow for large corporate sponsorships, which would dramatically reduce the need for government funding, a solution which had proven successful in other states.
The NewsMail requested a response from Minister for Fire and Emergency Services Craig Crawford, who said the Blue Water Review working group had finalised its vision for the volunteer marine sector and QFES had presented these findings to the government for consideration.
The recommendations are available online at www.qfes.qld.gov.au/pages/review-vmr.aspx.