Rick Barker: United Fire Brigades’ Association
19 March, 2008
Opening address - United Fire Brigades’ Association of New Zealand Annual Conference
Opening address, Hon Rick Barker - United Fire Brigades’ Association of New Zealand Annual Conference, Trafalgar Centre, Nelson.
Merv George, President
Dame Margaret Bazley, Chairperson, New Zealand Fire Service Commission
Mike Hall, Chief Executive and National Commander of the New Zealand Fire Service
Kerry Marshall,Mayor of Nelson
Emrys Evans, UFBA Patron
I would like to welcome our overseas visitors
Mr Koichi Kato, Deputy Chief, Nakano district of Tokyo Fire Department
Mr Takuhiro Shima, President of Japan International FireServices Association
And I would also like to acknowledge the Chairman and Directors of the UFBA Board.
Thank you for inviting me to open your conference. It is always a pleasure to attend the Conference and acknowledge the splendid work you do for the community.
I was to have attended the FRFANZ conference in Nelson last year. Unfortunately I was unable to attend. So I am glad to be able to be here in Nelson today.
Nelson is renowned for its sunny climate. Yet increasingly we are seeing that no place is immune from the wilder forces of nature.
In May last year there was flooding here and firefighters were a key part of the emergency response. You are routinely relied on to be the first responder to all manner of emergencies.
Should a civil defence emergency such as an earthquake occur, firefighters form a key part of a community's response.
For this reason I have been in discussion with the Commission about what can be done to ensure that fire stations are resilient.
Strengthening physical fire stations is a fundamentally important part of strengthening of local communities. Fire Stations will be a key operational hub should an earthquake occur.
I have vivid recollections of a recent emergency where our first response capability was strongly tested.
I was in Hastings when the earthquake stuck on the evening of 20th December last year.
It is in times of adversity, such as this, the volunteer spirit comes to the fore.
I saw this first hand when I visited Gisborne following the earthquake. People want to help. But they often don’t know how.
This is the huge advantage that your organisation offers. The Fire Service provides the support and resources for communities to help themselves.
Other strengths of being part of a national service were also evident in the aftermath of the quake.
The Fire Service arranged for additional resources to be deployed from Napier and a 30-strong Urban Search and Rescue team was deployed from Palmerston North.
They provided invaluable support to the Gisborne District Council to implement the building safety evaluation process.
I’m proud to be associated with such a fine organisation.
A good example how much firefighters are part of the community is the recent fire at the Patea meatworks. The community faced a threat from asbestos being spread by the steam generated from fighting the fire, so the volunteers waited till residents had been evacuated, so as to avert the possible threat to the community.
Post fire the brigades hosed down houses to allay any fears of asbestos contamination. This is yet another example of the varying threats which you confront as firefighters.
I was also very impressed to see first hand the efforts of volunteers in the wake of the tornadoes in Taranaki last year.
The extreme weather caused major damage to property, and once again it was in many cases volunteers who were called on to work through the night – securing roofs and assisting wherever required.
This is another example of the range of events firefighters are called on to respond to.
Recognising the cooperation between rural and urban services is another important dimension of our New Zealand system. A good example of this working in practice was in the Wairarapa in February.
Appliances were sent to the Wairarapa from Wellington to assist in putting out a plantation fire. This is a good example of the commonsense approach which we typically adopt in New Zealand. And we do it despite shortcomings of the legislation.
For such an historic association as yours it’s fitting at this point to recall a well-remembered event, the Ballantyne’s fire.
Last November saw the 60th anniversary of the fire at the Ballantyne and Co department store in Christchurch. Some of you may even recall this.
Forty-one people died in that fire. It is the worst fire tragedy in our history and it was a major event in the development of firefighting services in New Zealand.
The findings of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the disaster included a recommendation for one fire service throughout New Zealand. This is still the basis of our current urban firefighting system.
And that leads me to the present review of legislation. I know many of you will be wondering where we have got to.
The review of legislation
I am sorry to say that the news is not as positive as I would have hoped. While no final decisions have yet been made, I need to indicate that we are struggling to reach a consensus with all stakeholders on the way forward. That is indeed unfortunate.
We need to have a strong consensus for change to make things work. That’s why I consulted widely. But the results of the consultation show that consensus is difficult to achieve. Some views just remain entrenched. The time is not right.
Yet I believe that change will inevitably come. We will not give up on the need to make things better for all volunteers.
We will continue to explore ways to support everyone better.
We must retain the wide view about where things will head. In this respect I am in the process of talking to my Cabinet colleagues so that I can finally make some announcement about what we will do next.
I am aware that over the years the emphasis of the Commission’s support for volunteers has shifted. In the late nineties the emphasis was on addressing the backlog of deferred maintenance on stations, renewing the fleet, providing modern protective clothing, communications equipment and the like.
I think the rationale for this approach was Give the volunteers a decent station, a late model truck and some decent tools to do the job then the volunteers will take care of themselves.
In the early years of this decade the emphasis shifted to supporting brigades and the UFBA. So brigade grants were revamped and increased, funding for the UFBA was increased, brigade governance and leadership courses were promoted.
In my time as Minister I have encouraged the Commission to think about improving the benefits to individual volunteers and their employers.
Last year the Commission introduced free health monitoring for all volunteers and this year is extending the employer recognition programme piloted last year to another 100 brigades.
In a similar vein I am now encouraging the Commission to look at volunteer gratuities. I understand the UFBA has written to the Commission on this subject setting out the basis for a case to increase the long standing limit on gratuities established in the Act.
Given the value of volunteer contributions I imagine that the Commission will consider the request sympathetically. I look forward to receiving formal advice from the Fire Service and my officials on this matter.
But I would like to end on an even more positive note. I know that members of your Association have been recognised in the Honours List.
In particular I see that a past President, Brian Schimanski, has been recognised as well as Bill Cranson, Ron Leonard and Ray Brown. Congratulations to you all.
I understand too that the Fire Service Commission will be recognising the awards next month. These awards are not just an acknowledgement of individual achievement but recognition for the efforts of all volunteers. They reflect on you all.
When making an Award of Commendation to Te Kopuru Brigade for work in the Northland floods last year, Mike Hall commented,
“Volunteer Fire Brigades are pivotal to their communities. This country just couldn’t function without its volunteer firefighters …”
I heartily endorse this statement of the invaluable role carried out by volunteer firefighters.
So I wish you well over the next few days with your conference.
I am happy to declare the 2008 Annual General Meeting and Conference of your Association officially open.