Supporting our Pacific partners - welcome to Puaikura VFB

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So many brigades across isolated parts of New Zealand will know the reliance their community has on them. Isolated brigades require broad skills to deal with vegetation fires and structure fires. This is the case for the Puaikura Volunteer Brigade.

The difference for this special brigade is that their nearest support beyond one other volunteer brigade and the airport is across nearly 1,000 km of South Pacific Ocean! Puaikura VFB is crucial to safe-guard Rarotonga’s wider community and one of our newest member brigades.

As a protectorate of New Zealand, brigades on the Cook Islands maintain a close relationship with Fire and Emergency NZ. Puaikura was established by three former NZ Fire Service members, including the first CFO and founder Barry Hill, who sadly passed away this year at 82 years old.

Barry had been instrumental in helping the brigade join the UFBA and this was made possible under our new modernised constitution. We were delighted to receive their application to join.

We spoke with Tarina Moorfield, Puaikura brigade secretary and firefighter, to learn more about the brigade and how they’ve been faring during this unusual year.

‘My family and I moved here just a few years ago, after having visited on and off for over 20 years. I’m part Cook Islander and over the years we’d built a close connection with Barry. ‘

‘We’re doing ok over here though have been reliant on the government subsidies to support people. Tourism is the main income for the islands, predominantly Aussies and Kiwis, and flights have reduced from 21 a week to just one, mostly bringing supplies.’

‘Much like NZ brigades our members are largely self-employed or work for government departments or tourist operators. We have 24 members and all are volunteers. We’ve only been around since 2002 when Barry first established the brigade. Prior to that, all responses would have been from the Rarotonga Airport brigade.’

‘Before the brigades were in place just 20 years ago, fires would largely have had to be dealt with by locals banding together using whatever they had to hand. Unfortunately, small rubbish fires on properties are commonplace here. There are no permits and often green waste is left to smoulder and sets fire to coconut trees.’

‘That’s not to say we haven’t had our dramas.  In 2018, we had an arsonist causing eight fires in two months including one in a large warehouse – that was the second arsonist in recent years.’

‘We have one issue a lot of rural firefighters have to deal with – the lack of water. Any fires outside of the main circuit – the road running around the perimeter of the island - means we need to use local streams or creeks and pumps.’

‘Altogether though we have around 30 call outs a year. This number might seem low but we do not respond to medical calls or purple calls. We recently did training in first response and this is something I would like us to consider in the future, as that way we’d be part of a network able to respond quicker. Currently our response can be hindered by calls having to indirectly go through Police, who then call either ambulance or fire.‘

‘So back to this year. We’ve actually been able to make good use of the hotels being empty through one of our usual Monday training drills.  One of the largest resorts that would normally accommodate 700-800 people was empty so we simulated a fire as this is a good time to perfect our response.’

‘We work with the local community to get done what we can. There is a hierarchy here though that is similar to iwi and hapu. The Island is split into three vaka, or tribes. We are based in Vaka Puaikura.  This area has its own chief and sub-chief alongside more formal government layers. Other ways we are different to metropolitan brigades but similar to some rural or isolated brigades is in the type of station we have. Our engine bays were added quite recently to the local town hall which also has a constable posted there. Most of our volunteers carry their fire gear with them and go straight to the incident. Drivers will go get the truck. Those first on scene will do an initial exposure protection, assess the plan of action and look for hydrants. That’s one issue as hydrants are not clearly marked!’

‘Looking forward to 2021, we’re hoping to get an injection of funding through a grass roots development fund based in Japan. They helped source equipment and vehicles for the other brigade who got $350,000 including several appliances.  As a not-for-profit we get a government social impact fund of $12,000 per annum to support our maintenance and running costs, so any extra is a huge help.’

‘Much of our equipment is Fire and Emergency branded as we get used equipment donated from Fire and Emergency. We have a really good relationship with them and they recently came out to provide training for us, it was to deliver a recruits course, then Hazmat and pump training.'

‘We are hoping to get involved in UFBA’s challenges and would love to try something similar over here in collaboration with Corrections and Police. Don’t hold your breath on the Challenges being brought over here for Kiwi firefighters anytime soon though! Some of us have done the Skytower Challenge. ’

‘One of the big attractions for us in joining the UFBA is the Service Honours. I’d like to think this is part of Barry’s legacy as he always wanted us to get the recognition that Service Honours bring.  One of our brigade has 32 year experience including time with Foxton Beach. So, to have this recognised in a way that carries such mana will be special for our brigade.’

‘I also look forward to meeting others through the conference and women’s networking.  The opportunity to network when you’re almost 1,000 kms away from your neighbour is so important, as much now as any other time in the history of the service.’

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Find out more about Puaikura VFB through their Facebook page here.