‘We’ve worked so hard’: Licensing change could force veteran fire safety operators to close their doors

Some fire safety businesses are facing the prospect of being forced to close their doors after a licensing change that has left them unaccredited to do their work.

Key points:New rules could force existing workers to undertake three years of extra training400 small businesses may be affectedA long-term industry worker says the change "will not improve fire safety one iota"

From fire hoses to extinguishers, emergency lighting and doors, Carl Carlsen was fully licensed to test and maintain it all. 

Earlier this week, the skills he honed over 25 years became void in Queensland.

"Well, it's been months of just sleepless nights," Mr Carlsen said.

A licensing change for the fire protection industry means Mr Carlsen, 69, needs to undertake a three-year apprenticeship with an additional certification in fire protection to keep doing the work he has been doing most of his working life.

He has submitted materials for recognition of prior learning to a trade college for a small portion of the required modules, but was told there was up to a 12-week wait on hearing back.

The licensing change was meant to come into effect on May 1, 2021, but a last-minute extension meant it was pushed out by six months to November 1.

Wife Ruth Carlsen co-runs the family business based in Ipswich, and said she had been sick with worry.

"I'm much calmer now but I mean, we were sick, in the beginning, with what was going on and how we were going to deal with it and the implications for us," Mrs Carlsen said.

"Carl will be 70 next year, and it's like – we've worked so hard, and we've got a business that we can't sell because we've got nothing to sell anymore, and we've still got debt coming out of our ears.

"So those things, you go 'well, why have we worked so hard and such long hours to build a little business?'. It's like there's been no point. There's been absolutely no point."

Fire extinguishers and other safety equipment must be regularly serviced.
Fire extinguishers must be serviced regularly to stay in good working order.(ABC News: Stephanie Zillman)

The new licensing framework has drawn the ire of opposition MP Tim Mander, who used parliamentary privilege to question alleged conflicts of interest within the very industry that lobbied for the changes.

Mr Mander cited data, compiled by the Fire Protection Association of Australia (FPA Australia), that showed approximately 400 small businesses were beholden to the licensing change, and had to employ licensed plumbers and carpenters and take on nominees for their businesses, in order to stay afloat.

The license change means a young apprentice Mr Carlsen took on three years ago will be senior to him, and the one signing off on Mr Carlsen's work.

Holding a certificate II in fire protection, Mr Carlsen needs to gain at least a certificate III to keep doing his job and a certificate IV to be able to certify his own work.

Mum-and-dad businesses not consulted

The question of why the impact on small business was not assessed prior to the licensing change coming into effect is simply answered, according to former QBCC licensing manager Graham Easterby.

"A regulatory impact statement wasn't done," Mr Easterby said.

"And that regulatory impact statement would have afforded the opportunity for the wider community and the wider industry and the mum-and-dad businesses and the regional businesses to have submitted their insights for improvement and concerns."

Graham Easterby says small businesses have been badly impacted by fire protection licensing changes.
Former QBCC licensing manager Graham Easterby says small businesses have been badly impacted by fire protection licensing changes.(ABC News: Mark Leonardi)

Mr Easterby was the QBCC-appointed observer on the Ministerial Construction Council's subcommittee that recommended the licensing changes for the fire industry.

He said that while the stated reason for the licensing change was improving fire safety, he did not believe the changes would lead to a safer industry.

He argued that because so many small businesses were not given enough time to gain the new skills there would be fewer people doing the work of the industry.

"There will likely be a shortage of employees and workers undertaking the tasks around the testing, inspecting and the maintaining of fire hydrants and hose reels," Mr Easterby said.

That is a view shared by Therese Walker from Northside Fire Service.

Mrs Walker said she believed there had been a genuine mistake when she first learned of the changes that would affect the business she runs with her husband.

She has spent the last six months trying to get the views of small business across to lawmakers.

In October and just days before the licensing change came into effect, Mrs Walker successfully lobbied for a meeting with Pine Rivers MP Nikki Boyd, one of Mick de Brenni's senior ministerial advisers, and other departmental bureaucrats at Parliament House.

Therese Walker has been lobbying for small businesses with in the industry.
Therese Walker has been lobbying government to listen to the concerns of small businesses in the fire protection industry. (ABC News: Mark Leonardi)

Afterwards, she said it was the first time since the changes were announced she had felt hopeful about the future of her and her husband's business.

"From what I've been told today, which is that they will look into the small business factor and what has actually happened to us, I have to say, I am hopeful, yes."

Questions over alleged conflicts of interest

Mr Mander has sought explanations from the minister in charge, Mr de Brenni, about the licensing changes, and the alleged conflicts of interest of members of his subcommittee.

In particular, Mr Mander questioned the appropriateness of the involvement of the only fire protection company to be represented on the subcommittee – FVS Services Group.

The company's CEO Andrew Hickman is also a board member of the QBCC and the current president of National Fire Industry Association (NFIA) — the main group that lobbied for the changes.

Neither the QBCC, NFIA, FVS Services Group or Mr de Brenni answered questions from the ABC on whether Mr Hickman had declared a conflict of interest.

In a statement, Mr de Brenni said: "I have been assured [QBCC] Board members have managed any perceived conflicts in line with community expectations."

Mr Mander said that following his questions to Mr de Brenni in parliament, he was contacted by dozens of small business owners who were affected by the license change.

"The changes that the Minister has introduced, will not improve fire safety one iota. But it does put hundreds of businesses and thousands of employees at risk of being out of business.

"These people are very reasonable in saying that we're happy to do that, to gain those certificates, but allow us to trade for that period of time that it takes us to upgrade our qualifications, because they'll go broke in that time and they need to earn income."

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The NFIA told the ABC in a statement it believed the license changes were fair and reasonable, and would make the industry safer.

"Due to the need for existing practitioners to upskill as a result of the new regulations, there has been a certain amount of opposition from a minority of contractors to the reforms," the NFIA said.

"We understand that needing to demonstrate competency by having to obtain a qualification for the work that someone believes they can already do does not sit well with some people," it said.

The explanatory notes to the legislation that prescribed the change into law stated that consultation had been limited because "it is reasonably clear there will be no significant adverse impacts."

Mr Mander called for an inquiry into the licensing regime, which was rejected by the government.

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