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Barker: New Fire Service to be Developed

Barker: New Fire Service to be Developed

Internal Affairs Minister Rick Barker speaks at the Auckland Regional Fire Brigade's Association annual conference in Dargaville of the development of a new New Zealand Fire Service.

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Acknowledgements

·President of the Auckland Provincial Fire Brigades' Association, Henry Nissen
·Chief Fire Officer, Dargaville, Mitch King
·NZ Fire Service Northland Regional Manager, Trevor Andrews


Opening remarks

Thank you for inviting me to your annual conference here in Dargaville today.
I know that this region once thrived on the export of kauri timber and gum. The great trees to the north, where Tane Mahuta still stands, remind us of our unique forest heritage. And forests bring with them a reminder of the most fundamental reason why you are all here - protecting lives, communities and property from the dangers of fire.

Your Association represents brigades and fire teams from throughout the region, both volunteer and full time firefighters. It represents urban and rural fire services. But to whichever group you belong, you are firefighters and rescue workers foremost. To the public you are all part of the same team. You have a great public image because you do vital work that your communities rely on and value.

It's fitting, therefore, that at a meeting where many of you are giving your time freely, I am able to announce some important developments about the future. Developments in how we organise our fire and rescue services.


The review of fire legislation

All of you should be aware that the government has been carrying out a review of fire legislation. I'll talk later in my address about where things have got to. But first it would be well to remind ourselves why this review is being carried out.

There are two reasons why we need change. The first is that your work is poorly supported by the legislation. The second is that the system of fire management we have in New Zealand is not well suited to our future needs.

We don't have to look far to understand why this is so. We have a Fire Service Act that dates from 1975, and a Forest and Rural Fires Act that dates from 1977. These are focussed almost solely on fire, rather than a wider rescue role. They establish organisational and management structures that reflect the early 1900s rather than 2006.

A glance back at the history underlines the fact that our fire services have not really finished evolving. In 1975 we brought together local government urban fire services into a single national structure. Rural fire legislation continued to be based on the central role of the New Zealand Forest Service.

Rural fire arrangements were starkly exposed in the 1980s when the old New Zealand Forest Service was divided into Forestcorp and the Department of Conservation. This dissipated many of the existing firefighting resources. It increased the practical responsibilities of local authorities, in the form of rural fire authorities, to look after rural fire matters.

A part solution to this decentralisation of rural fire responsibilities was the formation of the National Rural Fire Authority in 1991. This role was given to the Fire Service Commission. Meanwhile the dual system we have today allows opportunities for closer integration. That's what we're addressing today.

The legislation we have today is outdated and we can improve on it by:

·making it less ambiguous in terms of functions and accountabilities
·clarifying fire boundaries
·addressing some gaps in protecting firefighters who perform non-fire rescue tasks
·ensuring that more consistent standards and services are delivered, throughout the country, subject to local variations in circumstances.
·In saying this I can only admire the way in which you all work around these legislative deficiencies. Good commonsense has prevailed in the past, but this will not be enough in the future.


The real problems of outdated legislation

It's all very well for me to talk about problems in the legislation, but why is this a problem in the real world? I'll highlight the main issues.

First is that two fire management systems and 87 accountable fire managers can't be the most efficient way to run things. The country is just too small to sustain such a system.

Second. The system results in uneven fire services being provided throughout the country. While sometimes this may be justified because of local conditions, in other cases it is unacceptable to New Zealanders that the same range and consistency of services is not available to all communities.

Third. The wider rescue role is not fully provided for and there may be some legal exposure of firefighters in some circumstances. However, it is non-fire incidents such as road accidents, storms and floods, where assistance is increasingly sought.

And fourth, we know that the system is unfair from a funding point of view. We need to try and make it fairer.

Yet while there are many good reasons to seek change, we also need to acknowledge the many good features about our system that we want to retain.


Good features

The strengths of our current fire services rest on the unique blend of paid and unpaid services that we have in this country.

Most of New Zealand is covered by a strong rural service, and urban volunteer brigades in the smaller centres. In the cities, where fires happen more often, we have a paid fire-fighting service, which also has special training to deal with unusual contingencies.

I can't overstate the importance of volunteers to the system. We have between 7-8,000 volunteers in the urban services and some 3,000 rural system volunteers. That's more than 10,000 people who are trained to help their communities.

Most of you here today are probably volunteers. I'm sure you all experience great support from your communities. And with that support comes high expectations on what you can achieve. I know these expectations often go well beyond helping at fires.

We can see the expectations of the community reflected in the high regard that local communities hold for Chief Fire Officers and Principal Rural Fire Officers. These positions are an important focus of our communities and I am particularly keen to maintain these kinds of positions in any new structure we contemplate.

It would also be unrealistic of me not to acknowledge that there are different cultures within the firefighting community. There are differences between how urban and rural firefighters see the world, just as there are differences between volunteers and paid firefighters.

But above all, what I see is a healthy dose of commonsense and cooperation in how you work. People get alongside each other when lives and property are at stake.

These features are key strengths in our system and I want to make sure we maintain them. And I believe that as we contemplate changes ahead, we will focus on solutions that can accommodate them. This is where we want to draw on your ideas of what will make a new system work. That is the challenge ahead of us.


A good climate for change

In the past, changes have been made in the aftermath of tragedies.

The 1947 Ballantyne's department store fire in Christchurch resulted in 41 deaths, and had a profound influence on our thinking about fire safety. It reinforced the support for the changes made by the Fire Services Act of 1949.

Large forest fires in the Central North Island in 1946 also had a major impact on legislation. The result was the Forest and Rural Fires Act of 1947, which enabled rural fire districts to be set up and established fire authorities.

However, it's much better to think about change when we're not responding to a tragedy. It gives us the opportunity for well-considered choices. It allows us to look ahead to the future, rather than react to the past. It provides an opportunity for everyone to be heard.


Progress on the review of legislation

So now I want to talk about where the review and consultation process has got to, and where I think we need to go.

In December 2004 my predecessor, the Hon George Hawkins, released a discussion document on the functions and structure of our fire and rescue services. It asked people to give their views on a number of key questions.

One hundred and twenty seven submission responses were received on the document. These expressed a wide range of views. Updated legislation was widely supported. Three quarters believed that a more closely integrated national system could be set up.

Many submissions were from the rural fire sector. These indicated concern that the focus on specific rural fire needs, such as prevention and land management issues, could be lost within a national organisation.

Rural fire stakeholders often saw a national organisation with a regional structure as the solution to achieve this. This was because a national-regional organisation was perceived as being more in touch with local communities, who understand local risks and how to deal with them.

In response to these submissions I had intended to release a second discussion document. The submissions gave me a good feel for what we need and I had thought to present a firm proposal for change.

However, in my talks with different stakeholder groups around the country it has become clear that I need the opportunity to test ideas with stakeholders. Rather than lay out a proposed solution for comment, at this stage I want to engage stakeholders directly to see if we can agree on the key features of a new model.


A process for the way forward

What I propose to do over the coming weeks is to convene a workshop with key stakeholders. At this meeting we'll make sure that everyone has the same information and we'll go through the details of a proposal, feature by feature, until we can reach a consensus.

Naturally, the United Fire Brigades Association will be one of the key stakeholders I will be inviting. Your representatives will have the opportunity to engage with others, to debate the issues and to help create the best solution.

The workshop won't be an unbounded exercise. From the last round of submissions I've gathered enough information to know that there is good support for some sort of integrated organisation providing leadership for all our fire and rescue services. The core ideas I'll be putting on the table will be:

·more integrated services, bringing together New Zealand's rural Fire Authorities and the New Zealand Fire Service Commission
·the functions to be integrated would include oversight of all aspects of fire risk in New Zealand and a clear responsibility to attend a broad range of non-fire incidents
·guiding principles in the legislation would ensure many different stakeholders and communities were engaged
·an emphasis on building on a community base, while supporting volunteers and paid staff
·a single new brigade structure, accommodating both urban and rural fire and rescue workers, while recognising their different work
·legal protection would extend to all fire and rescue workers when carrying out their duties, and when properly trained
·strong links to regional civil defence emergency management groups
·the opportunity for organisations wishing to provide their own fire response services to do so, providing they could establish that they met minimum national standards

There are very strong reasons for having more integrated services. I won't go into all of those now, but an important one is that a single organisation could assure us of a consistent approach to the standards and levels of services provided.


Reaching a solution

No one thinks that the current situation is perfect or cannot be improved upon. It is important to preserve our greatest assets, the commitment and dedication of volunteers, and goodwill. We need to build on these strengths developed over one hundred years of service, to hand on to future generations a better fire service. It is akin to fixing the roof while the sun is shining.

The focus now needs to be on reaching a solution. This is an opportunity that only comes once in a generation. And we need to make sure that the solution caters for the needs of the next generation and the generation after.

I've put core ideas on the table, and invite your response. I invite you all to encourage your representatives to help us create a new kind of service. One that is better suited to the future, but one that builds on our present strengths.

So thank you for this opportunity. I wish you well for the rest of your conference and I look forward to hearing your representatives' views shortly.

ENDS

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