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Hawkins: Valuing volunteer firefighters

3 August 2005

Valuing volunteer firefighters

Hon George Hawkins' speech to the Forest and Rural Fire Association conference.

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I'm very pleased to be with you today and to be able to address the national conference of a group that represents such an admirable part of New Zealand life.

This country has a great tradition of volunteering and acting to support our communities.

A few weeks ago I was delighted to be able to convey a message of thanks from the Prime Minister to some of your colleagues who attended the Takaka fire.

As you might remember, a major fire had broken out in the Fonterra factory on the edge of town, threatening not only Takaka's biggest workplace, but neighbouring properties and - at one stage - the lives of the town's inhabitants, when it was feared that chemicals at the plant would ignite to form a toxic gas cloud similar to mustard gas.

First on the scene were the town's volunteer fire fighters, soon to be joined by their colleagues from across the district - including the Upper Takaka Rural Fire Party. And what a job they did! Much of the factory was saved - and along with it the future employment of many of the local people; Takaka was evacuated at the height of the 'poison gas' fear - even the locals propping up the bar in the local pub were persuaded to abandon their pints - and the whole operation was carried out with no loss of life and minimal damage to property.

I remember watching the images on TV that night and - along with every other New Zealander who saw those pictures - being thankful that our communities can call on such dedicated, well-trained volunteers in an emergency.

Changes in the sector

Earlier this year I was pleased to see changes in legislation affecting the rural fire sector. One of the key developments this introduced was the ability to assess the performance of all Fire Authorities. It gives us a new tool to look at how we are doing nationally.

I know that there will be a lead-in period to establish the new processes. However, I will watch the results with interest. Improved performance measures will allow us to understand better how we can improve things in the long term.

New fire legislation

The Takaka blaze which I talked about earlier highlighted the co-operation between rural and urban firefighters, which is a focus of the current review of fire legislation.

I am pleased at the level and quality of responses to the first discussion document. There was a good range of organisations making submissions, and submissions came from all over the country. Rural fire interests were particularly well represented.

I note that there was widespread support for changes of some kind. There was also strong support for a greater level of integration of firefighting services. That's not to say there was any simple agreement on how we should order things in future.

You will soon have the opportunity to read all the different views on the Department of Internal Affairs' website. And I think that the debate will be greatly improved when everyone is able to understand the range of views that were represented.

A key issue was a community perception that we only have one fire service. For example, in the view of one rural fire force: "The expectations of the public...(do) not differentiate between urban and rural fire...The dual system does nothing to improve service to the public (and) integration should improve standards in many areas."

And this from another volunteer rural fire force: "urban and rural ... appear to the community as one organisation, so we believe this should be the reality. It would also allow for much better integration in the provisioning of our resources, supplies, equipment, training and command and control, rather than the split system operated at present..."

There was also keen debate on the extent to which the services should be integrated, but strong support for a single governing organisation. Submitters views often reflected the sector they came from, but not always, with one veteran rural firefighter commenting: "Services can be integrated, but specialist wildfire forces and professional wildfire officers should be retained within the new service. I believe this was done in Tasmania."

To quote one volunteer urban firefighter: "I believe that there is a strong need to...make a combined service, governed singularly, with equal opportunities for all members. The present boundaries and divisions of responsibility between Fire Service Districts and Rural Fire Districts (are) difficult to manage. Vegetation fires can sweep through urban areas and (structural) fires occur in rural areas. Life style areas are not easily classified as urban or rural...The existing structure needs improvement."

The availability of volunteers is obviously another issue. There appeared to be a strong belief that the availability of fewer volunteers was a trend and some thought this could best be accommodated by forming combined community brigades. One person wrote: "In my area there are four small towns, three Fire Service stations, two ambulance stations and one rural fire party. All are short of volunteers. There are not enough people to have two fire groups in most small towns."

Motivation and encouragement for volunteers was a common theme. The strong ownership feelings of communities for their brigades was often expressed. The need to support communities in fostering their own brigades was a key finding from the submissions, such as this: "Being classified as 'rural' we are also well down the turn out list. Generally we do not get called to car crashes on our boundary roads, which causes a lot of questions from our community. This is not helpful for volunteer morale."

And another submission wrote: "...volunteers...need to be there as a first response (as) they have all the local knowledge."

Other submissions spoke in a very positive way about their role in their communities. One rural fire force said: "As an organisation we have grown within the local community.Regular interaction with the local volunteer brigades at fires over the years has built up strong links, each group comfortable with the other group's specialist skills and equipment."

If there is one message I will emphasise at this point, it is the importance of volunteers. There is no doubt that communities value their volunteers but we need to reinforce our communities' sense of ownership of volunteer brigades.

But neither should we forget that paid fire fighters are also a key part of our system. New legislation must support both groups. I will be watching closely to ensure that the interests of both groups are well balanced in any new system.

The next step in the review will be the release of the second discussion document towards the end of the year. I encourage you all to take the opportunity to make your views known.

The past year

Let me conclude by congratulating you on a year of success.

Big urban blazes like Takaka tend to get all the media attention: out in the areas where you do most of your work there are no reporters and no camera crews.

So today I want to acknowledge the very good job you've all done in the year just completed. I understand that the total area lost to wildfires was well down on the previous year. It was also close to the ongoing target of a 25 per cent reduction on long-term averages.

These achievements are a credit to you all.

Conclusion

So thank you for your invitation today. And thank you all for your efforts of the past year. It gives me much pleasure to declare your conference open. Have a productive and enjoyable time.

ENDS

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