Victoria’s fire services are undergoing a massive and controversial restructure with the Country Fire Authority to become a volunteer-only service while FRV will cover Melbourne and urbanised parts of Victoria.
However, the new commissioner will begin working in Melbourne from February next year.
We needed to see a different sort of person … to give us a chance to move on from that toxic culture that it exists.
Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville
Mr Block said he had visited Melbourne several times and known United Firefighters Union Victoria secretary Peter Marshall since 2011 through their work on presumptive rights to cancer compensation for firefighters.
Mr Block insisted he had a strong history of working with unions and was himself president of the Edmonton Fire Fighters’ Union for six years.
Mr Block said he was undeterred by the troubled history of international fire appointments in Victoria, including former MFB chief Dan Stephens who had a tense relationship with the union and lasted less than a year after being recruited from the UK.
“The fire service is about risk and taking chances. Really the chance here is the opportunity for Fire Rescue Victoria and moving forward with a different structure,” he said. “It’s a new day. I think I bring something to the table perhaps that is somewhat different.”
He said population growth was among the major challenges for Victorian firefighters. Mr Block maintained he was also committed to increasing the number of women and people from diverse backgrounds in fire services.
Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville said there had been an “extensive international search” with 10 “high-quality applications”.
“He’s held in high regard by the government over there. He’s held in high regard by the workforce,” Ms Neville said.
She said a toxic culture had beset Victoria’s fire services and it needed new leadership.
“We had to do things differently and in my view we needed to see a different sort of person with different skills, different demeanour to come into Victoria to give us a chance to move on from that toxic culture that it exists.”
Ms Neville said there were similarities between Melbourne and Edmonton, which also has a volunteer service.
“He is particularly well known for his incredible work in mental health and wellbeing for firefighters particularly focused on PTSD,” she said. “He’s also been instrumental in looking at building codes and particularly around cladding in the area, which is of course a very topical issue for us here.”
Mr Marshall said he looked forward to working with the government and Mr Block to implement the new FRV service.
He said the creation of FRV had come about through years of parliamentary inquiries, coronial inquests and a royal commission.
“The matters raised in these official forums shaped Fire Rescue Victoria as a new, professional fire service that will improve the protection of the community and the safety of both volunteers and career firefighters,” he said.
Opposition emergency services spokesman Brad Battin criticised the appointment.
“Today Daniel Andrews delivered again for United Firefighters’ Union boss Peter Marshall with his mate and chosen person to lead Fire Rescue Victoria, Ken Block.”
However, Ms Neville insisted she did not consult with the union before making the appointment.
Benjamin is a state political reporter