Justice? National Emergency Medal & the Jan. 2020 Bushfire Crisis



In January of 2020, Australia suffered through one of its worst summer bushfire seasons. South Australia was hit hard. Over half of Kangaroo Island was burnt out, and the Adelaide Hills took significant damage as well. In order to help struggling communities back on their feet, Prime Minister Scott Morrison issued a national callout to the Australian Army, regulars and reservists, to lend their support to fire-ravaged areas – Operation Bushfire Assist.

According to a Department of Defence statement (7 Jan.):

The National Emergency Medal can be awarded by the Governor-General to any person who has given sustained service during a nationally significant emergency.

The award will recognise those who protected lives and property on the frontline during the bushfires and also those who served in support of those efforts.

The qualifying period of service for the award is between September 2019 and February 2020, but dates vary according to affected local government areas in NSW, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and the ACT.

The compulsory callout for Operation Bushfire Assist was stipulated from 4 January 2020 with the Governor General on 26 January 2020 revoking the compulsory callout to take effect – 7 February 2020. The Army’s role was not for firefighting, but for support of effected infrastructure, civilians, their property and clean-up. The problem? Soldiers who answered the Prime Minister’s callout and served in the Kangaroo Island Area of Operation (AO) up to and including 6 February 2020 are eligible for the National Emergency Medal (NEM). However, eligibility for the NEM for soldiers who served in the Adelaide Hills AO ended on 6 Jan 2020. Two days after the callout commenced. Eligibility for the NEM is five consecutive days of service in the AO. Because the AO’s were limited in their geographic definition soldiers who served in Headquarters and support of the operations, whose job it was to co-ordinate operational activities are not entitled to the NEM. In 2009 during the Victorian fires the AO was declared state-wide, that is, the AO was Victoria. This allowed recognition for those who may not have served in the fire zones, to be recognised for their contribution to the success of the operation.

Those who answered the PM’s call-out sacrificed existing work and family commitments to assist during this crisis. Some 3,500 soldiers answered the call-out nationally. There were roughly 600 soldiers involved in the Adelaide Hills AO. Approximately 300 of whom are based in the Woodside area and fall out of the NEM eligibility criteria. We believe this is wrong and that all Army personnel who met the five-day criteria and served to make the operations a success should be awarded the NEM for their efforts during Operation Bushfire Assist. We call upon the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to reassess its position on this matter.

Views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of
SAGE International Australia

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