The Country Fire Authority has been accused of "gross incompetence and degrading and dismissive treatment" toward volunteers following a heated argument over lost training records.
Firefighters at Mount Cameron Fire Brigade, near Ballarat, are prepared to stand down and dissolve the brigade after volunteer members were threatened to be de-registered over the administration bungle, three years after graduating as firefighters.
"Whatever consequences are applied to those men is to be applied to the entire brigade, so the likely outcome is that the CFA changes the brigade's status to non-active and it folds," Mount Cameron Fire Brigade secretary Rachel Brooks said.
"The CFA is dismissive, arrogant and happy to waste our time as volunteers.
"They take it for granted that we are there to serve them, losing sight that they exist to assist and support us in protecting our communities, and think we should be there to pick up the pieces of their incompetence."
Firefighter Jake Seers, and lieutenants Lachlan Hull and Dylan Pretty, completed the General Firefighter Program course in Ballarat in 2018, but evidence of the course completion was lost by a CFA training officer who suddenly passed away.
Three years after graduating and serving as active firefighters, the three men have been requested to undertake the week-long training again or risk being de-registered as firefighters.
In an email exchange to Ms Brooks on December 13, 2021, CFA District 2 commander Mick Hembrow said the incident was a record-keeping blunder by the CFA.
Mr Hembrow encouraged the members to continue their service.
"The record-keeping is not something that should have been thrown at these guys," he wrote.
"There will be no repeating minimum skills and no challenge testing.
"Please pass this onto the guys to reduce their stress and anxiety."
The incident erupted again last month when CFA District 2 assistant chief fire officer Steve Alcock threatened to amend the members' status to non-operational in a heated email exchange to Mount Cameron Fire Brigade, viewed by Stock & Land.
On March 16, Mr Alcock wrote he "inherited this legacy issue from a long line of people" and "I am recognising CFA has not handled the situation well previously".
Mr Alcock then requested a Recognition of Prior Learning by CFA's Training Governance but did not provide details of the RPL.
"Let me very clear with you," he wrote.
"Annie (Hemmings, CFA Training north-west region) and I, as senior leaders of CFA, are under no obligation to communicate with you in regards to the training needs of individual members.
"We have, and will, continue to communicate with the members directly and as appropriate provide updates to the captain of the brigade and the group training officer.
"As secretary you are in no position to demand anything of senior leaders of the organisation, especially in the tone and manner in which you have been doing."
Mr Alcock wrote that Ms Brooks' "blatant disregard for those who are trying to help will no longer be tolerated".
"Should you continue to interfere and disrupt the process at hand, delaying the works underway... I will be left with no other option than to amend the members' status to non-operational until such time as they complete the General Firefighter Program," he wrote.
The men were recruited by the Mount Cameron Fire Brigade after it was warned of becoming a satellite unit if it did not attract new members.
The three members were a part of a group of five recruits who joined at the same time and begun attending fires from 2019.
Ms Brooks said the brigade was "dumbfounded by the incompetence of the CFA" who failed to resolve the training admin issue.
"All along we have simply been asking what needs to be done to sort out this so we can agree on a reasonable solution and instead we have been faced with CFA resistance and arrogance," she said.
"If the CFA continues to sweep issues like these under the rug and shut us down to cover up its incompetence it will definitely leave the community vulnerable.
"If it gets to that point and if the brigade is made non-active by the CFA then we will rely on private units and private resources to protect the area."
She said the issue was a symptom of a wider, systemic issue at CFA, where paid careers officers treated volunteers as inferior members.
The training issue was not isolated to Mount Cameron, with Mount Alexander and Carisbrook brigades also reporting issues of "lost records and unreasonable requirements for repeat training".
"I've emailed every brigade in the whole CFA and collated their experiences with training issues," Ms Brooks said.
"After one night I received 15 complaints, of those there are five who had lost records and experienced issues of bullying and harassment from CFA paid staff."
Mount Cameron Fire Brigade had not been advised that the lieutenants were unable to attend fires while this matter was being resolved, which Mr Seers said was concerning from a safety and liability perspective.
"I know the job is a risk but that's why we are doing it - to save our farms and neighbours," he said.
"I don't even know if I would be covered [by insurance] and it seems funny that it is three years down the track before someone is asking these questions.
"If we have bad fires, this will be a real concern."
He said he became a firefighter to help his community but was unmotivated by the infighting within the CFA.
"It has got to the point where we don't want to bother anymore - it seems it has got too hard," he said.
"I just want it to blow over."
In a statement, a CFA spokesperson said the documentation for this training cannot be located.
"CFA values the time and input that all of our volunteers dedicate to their roles and their training," the spokesperson said.
"CFA is aware of this issue and has proposed a workable solution to rectify it."