Changes afoot for fire brigades

The biggest change to the emergency services sector in 40 years could have a major impact on volunteer brigades and rural fire forces.

The government announced last week that New Zealand’s fire services will be reviewed and reformed, and a consultation period was opened until July 10 through the Department of Internal Affairs. A preliminary discussion document released by Internal Affairs minister Peter Dunne calls for submissions on three possible reform options: enhanced status quo, a more coordinated service delivery model, or a single national fire service.

Former Te Anau chief fire officer Graeme Humphries said it was important that people engaged with this review, particularly volunteers.

“The Fire Service came into being in 1975, and I can’t recall anybody having the opportunity to have input into it like this.” The process for review began in 2012 with an independent Fire Review Panel led by Paul Swain, and the recommendations from this had opened the door to comprehensive changes in everything from funding and governance to first response and volunteer support, Mr Humphries said.

“I think the biggest problem with the Fire Service at the moment is that the chief executive is also the national commander,” he said. “The national commander’s job is to make policy and carry it out. The same guy that’s making the policy is the guy who’s meant to be balancing the books.” There were good points in all of the options presented, but the streamlining effect of a national service would be of great benefit, Mr Humphries said.

Mr Humphries said having a national service would eliminate the need for ratepayers to fund rural brigades, which inevitably became “an opportunity for the local authority to clip the ticket”, he said.

However, any amalgamated service would need to be balanced so it was still in touch with grassroots brigades and their circumstances. Current policy had until recently seen the Te Anau brigade training every six months for safety around railway lines, even though there hadn’t been any rail in Northern Southland for 30 years, Mr Humphries said.

Browns chief fire officer Ian Lindsay is also a past president of the United Fire Brigades Association and said the funding model for the Fire Service was in serious need of an update.

“They could generate quite a bit more funding,” he said.

“We attend car accidents, but not much of the car registration money comes to the Fire Service.” ACC made no contribution to fire services in New Zealand, the bulk of the funding coming instead from a levy on property insurance, Mr Lindsay said. However, any insurance levy was capped at the first $100,000 of insured value for residential properties, which left a huge amount of revenue untapped.

“If you’ve got a $500,000 house, you’ll only be charged the fire levy on the first $100,000.” “To have one service would have a lot of advantages and savings.

It’s not the ones on the hoses that cost the money, it’s the ones sitting behind the desk; they’re the ones that cost the money. I’m not saying they’re inefficient, but at the end of the run they’re not the ones doing the work.” The increase in response to non-fire emergencies had put pressure on brigades not only in terms of workload, but it potentially left them open to more serious legal consequences than in the case of fire emergencies, Mr Lindsay said.

“Both urban and rural brigades are doing a lot more of that now, though it’s not really part of the charter and there’s not really any legal protection.” New Zealand Fire Service region five manager David Guard said the amount of liability limitation for things like property damage caused while on duty was vague, and the review would offer an opportunity to address that.

“To be perfectly honest, it’s not 100 percent clear what protection the Fire Service Act actually provides, particularly when it’s anything but fire.” With regard to the insurance levy funding model, it was not just the value cap that was affecting the amount of revenue being generated, Mr Guard said.

“It’s fair to say that there are some commercial insurers who do find loopholes in the current legislation.” “We are very pleased to see the review occurring, and particularly the minister Peter Dunne taking such an active role in the review,” he said.

“We believe that it’s long overdue, and of course there have been previous attempts to review legislation, but this one appears to be more comprehensive in its approach.” Previous reviews might not have been met with the same willingness for change as there was now, and nor had they been helped by being timed close to elections, Mr Guard said.


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