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Fire services to merge

New Zealand urban and rural fire services will be amalgamated into a single national fire service by 2017.

Internal Affairs Minister Peter Dunne announced the decision to the 137th annual United Fire Brigades Association (UFBA) Conference at Wellington’s TSB Arena on Friday.

Mr Dunne announced the beginning of a reform process and consultation period in June, and this announcement is the culmination of months of local engagement around New Zealand.

Mr Dunne said at the conference that the new national body would be responsible for resourcing fire services, training and professional standards, but would work with the regional committees on delivery matters.

“This is not a takeover of any one part by Wellington or HQ, but is rather a merging of the talents,” he said. “The regional committees are there to ensure that no one is overlooked, and that the particular interests of our regions are taken fully into account.”

Details of the new service were yet to be decided, and consultation would continue into the new year, Mr Dunne said. He hoped to introduce legislation to replace the current Fire Service Act and the Forest and Rural Fires Act to Parliament next year, and have the new fire service in place by mid-2017.

“The new fire services will continue to be funded primarily through the levies on insurance premia, with the final details to be resolved over the next little while,” he said. “Some stakeholders raised concerns about local assets like the stations or engines having been funded by the community, and I want to give an assurance that there will be a managed process involving stakeholders to work out a way to deal with any asset transfer.”

Many services performed by career and volunteer firefighters now extend beyond fires and into broader first response, but the legal mandate to perform these tasks and its associated legal protections if things go wrong have not caught up with these changes.

Mr Dunne said the mandate of fire services would be expanded and modernized, “to include their role in activities like urban search and rescues, motor vehicle assists and extrication’s and other emergency services which it currently performs but actually has no legal mandate for”.

“It is clear that the new unified fire services will require new thinking, to get the very best that a new national organisation can provide, while retaining all that works well locally such as fire land management tools, to keeping the gratuity system,” Mr Dunne said.

Southern Rural Fire Authority principal rural fire officer Mike Grant said 70 to 80 percent of the submissions had been in favour of the amalgamation, subject to the retention of localized decision-making.

“One thing the rural sector was quite strong on during the submission process was having regional representation and looking at setting up regional advisory committees.”

From a resourcing perspective, one national fire service would ensure that small and rural brigades would be resourced from the same pool of insurance levies as every other brigade, Mr Grant said.

“There has always been an argument that the rural people don’t get their fair share of what they contribute to that insurance levy,” he said. “80 percent of our operational funding is community money, so it’s rates, and conservation contributions, and forestry organisations.”

“What it will mean is that the rural people that actually fund that property insurance for their properties will actually be getting more for their insurance money.”

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