Post Traumatic Stress – the firefighters silent crisis

Issue date:

Press release – ACC law change

Cancer and PTS doesn’t discriminate, so why does the system? The United Fire Brigades’ Association (UFBA) calls for legislative change to the Accident Compensation Act 2014 to protect Volunteer Firefighters from workplace related illness.

“Firefighters are the first line of defence for emergencies in New Zealand. New Zealand now needs to protect them”, says Bill Butzbach, UFBA Chief Executive Officer. 

Increases in mental health issues, PTS and rates of suicide have prompted research into what first responders need to stay emotionally healthy. The impact of repeated exposure to traumatic events is often overlooked. In a survey of an Australian volunteer fire service, it was found that: The risk of probable PTS was significantly higher for those with the most frequent involvement with distressing incidents and the highest levels of cumulative trauma exposure.  These firefighters are at an elevated risk of mental health problems – These trends are also emerging amongst NZ firefighters.

The Accident Compensation Act 2014 must change.  “Irrespective of what other countries are doing, volunteer firefighters in this country deserve better protection, accident compensation cover, and rehabilitation support if their work harms them” he says.  

Firefighters in this country are in the most trusted profession, and that’s because of their absolute dedication to protecting NZ’s people, property and environment.  ACC now provides coverage for paid firefighters by recognising certain cancers that are known to relate to firefighting duties. Job-related mental trauma is also covered. But this is not the case for volunteer firefighters.

No other country in the world recognises volunteer firefighters in legislation like New Zealand.  The UFBA successfully secured protection of all firefighters – specifically volunteers – in the Fire and Emergency Act 2017.  “It’s time to line up all other relevant employee legislation to equally protect emergency services volunteers” says Butzbach.

Paid firefighter compensation for chronic workplace illness is possible because of their employment status and that is right and proper.  The ACC law, when drafted, did not contemplate the notion of a volunteer emergency service workforce on call 24/7 who are ‘engaged’ rather than ‘employed’.

Volunteers make up 11,500 out of a 13,500 strong fire and emergency services frontline workforce and are on call 24/7, unlike paid firefighters who are rostered on shifts. 

Data obtained by the UFBA from FENZ show that over a 20-year period volunteer firefighters attended: 63% of road crashes, 55% of medical responses, 47% of structure fires in the built environment, 68% of vegetation fires in the natural environment and 49% of rescues.  Volunteer firefighters respond to emergency incidents across 95% of NZ’s landmass, and in an independent report commissioned by the UFBA, the volunteer firefighter contribution to the NZ economy, if monetised, is $659m per annum.

“These are real people we are talking about. This is not your typical community volunteer. The dangers associated with the work are not typical either – the laws must change.” says Butzbach.

The United Fire Brigades’ Association is the largest advocacy association representing firefighters in New Zealand. For more information visit www.ufba.org.nz  Contact: Bill Butzbach, UFBA CEO – 027 482 2207.