Hon. Peter Dunne with NZ Herald - "We rely on volunteer firefighters - can they rely on us?"

Issue date:

Can our loyal volunteer firefighters count on us?

Published by New Zealand Herald, 5:00AM, 24 November 2022


Byline: Peter Dunne is the chair of the United Fire Brigades’ Association. On Page: A020

We all rely on New Zealand’s fire services in an emergency, and, like everyone else, I am keen to see the dispute between the NZ Professional Firefighters Union (NZPFU) and its employer Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) resolved. It is looking promising, with the latest joint statement stating progress to settle the union’s claim has been made - ominously, however, the statement says "there is still funding to be arranged".

Where are the hundreds of millions of dollars to settle the claim, which includes a significant pay rise, coming from? And who will be impacted? As I have made clear to Internal Affairs Minister Jan Tinnetti, it must not be at the expense of the volunteer firefighters who make up the majority of our frontline staff.

Employed firefighters deserve fair and equitable terms and conditions, and it is the union’s role to negotiate those terms and conditions as they see fit - but not at the expense of a mainly volunteer service. There are about 1700 employed firefighters in New Zealand who are part of the union claim. There are 12,000 volunteer firefighters. They are not paid, they do not go and strike, and they risk their lives for us along with their employed colleagues.

Volunteers make up 85 per cent of the country’s frontline staff. They are the first responders to most emergencies across 93 per cent of New Zealand’s land mass. They are solely in charge of 567 of New Zealand’s 647 fire stations. They staff another 34 stations, alongside employed colleagues.

Many of us know the incredible work our volunteer firefighters do in our communities, sometimes at great cost to themselves, their families and their employers. They respond to incidents including natural disasters, hazardous substance spills, and fighting fires that put our people, property, and the environment at risk.

They attend 68 per cent of all vegetation fires, like the latest forest fire in Pegasus Bay, North Canterbury battled by Woodend Volunteer Fire Brigade and their neighbouring brigades. Volunteer firefighters also attend 63 per cent of road crashes and 55 per cent of medical response incidents each year. Sadly, many of our volunteers personally know the people involved, with incidents often involving serious injury or death. The impact of facing this trauma on their mental health and wellbeing can be lifelong.

I was, at the time, the Minister of Internal Affairs who led the fire services reform of 2017, to set up Fire and Emergency New Zealand as the single body unifying rural and urban fire services. One of the key aims was to lift support for volunteers and reduce the inequity they face compared to their employed colleagues. Not enough has been done in the past five years to address these issues.

As an example, our volunteers receive less rehabilitation support, compensation, and health and safety cover than their employed colleagues when they are injured on duty. ACC does not cover mental trauma experienced by volunteer firefighters on duty, or chronic workplace illness because it is considered in law to be a leisure activity. That fact is astonishing and cannot continue.

Volunteers do not receive the same level of uniform, training, fleet or equipment either. That is why the United Fire Brigades’ Association has launched a fairness and equity campaign on this issue. At the heart of this is the lack of funding for FENZ. Volunteers are first responders to emergencies across the majority of New Zealand, and along with their employed colleagues, represent a workforce the same size as the police but we spend roughly a third of the money on fire services that we spend on the police service. The police service costs about $2.1bn a year. The Government contributes about $10m a year to Fire and Emergency New Zealand, with the bulk of $649m coming from a fire levy on insurance policies.

The New Zealand population is not large enough to support fire stations staffed by employed firefighters throughout the country - that is why our volunteers are vital. We are largely reliant on the goodwill of volunteers and their deep sense of community service, as well as their employers and those that are self-employed. But we must not continue to take advantage of this goodwill. We cannot, if we are to sustain a modern, 21st-century emergency service that is equipped to face future challenges, such as more wildfires and weather events resulting from the effects of climate change.