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Dunne Speaks: Cheers Volunteers!

This week has been National Volunteers Week, the annual opportunity to celebrate the contribution volunteers make to our society.

New Zealanders are great volunteers. Throughout our country volunteers make their presence felt constantly. They are the people who run the sports clubs, coach the kids’ teams, visit the sick and the elderly, run the school committees, and do the myriad range of other community things that make our society work. Volunteering New Zealand’s 2020 State of Volunteering Report estimates New Zealanders contribute 159 million hours of volunteer labour each year, amounting to just over $8 billion or around 3% of our Gross National Product.

One of our largest groups of volunteers is volunteer firefighters. People are often surprised to learn that around 85% of our firefighters – urban and rural – are volunteers often sacrificing family life and time at work to community emergencies. Today, these are far more likely to be roadside or other emergencies, with less than 20% of fire callouts now being to actual fires.

However, despite the overwhelming presence of volunteers in our fire and emergency services, and notwithstanding the legislation I put through Parliament in 2016-17 establishing Fire and Emergency New Zealand which gave legal recognition for the first time to the role of volunteers, there remain some areas where volunteer firefighters are not treated equally with their paid counterparts. The most obvious relates to Accident Compensation.

The United Fire Brigades Association, the advocacy organisation which represents the volunteer 85% of our firefighters has recently highlighted an anomaly with regard to the treatment by the Accident Compensation Corporation of volunteer firefighters who suffer workplace related illnesses in the course of their firefighting work. The UFBA has pointed out that ACC covers paid firefighters, but not their volunteer counterparts, for certain cancers known to be related to firefighting duties, and job-related mental health trauma.

The anomaly arises because paid firefighters are properly recognised as employees of Fire and Emergency New Zealand, and therefore covered by ACC in such situations, whereas volunteers, although legally recognised for the first time in the 2017 legislation, are, by definition, not so regarded. This is because they are considered to be “engaged” by Fire and Emergency New Zealand, but not “employed” by it. The problem lies with the ACC legislation which was last reviewed in 2014 – before the establishment of Fire and Emergency New Zealand. That means that ACC currently has no category for recognising volunteers in this way. Consequently, it still treats volunteer firefighting as a leisure activity. Yet, unlike their paid counterparts who work on a rostered hours basis, volunteer firefighters are constantly on call. Things clearly need to change.

Data from an Australian study of volunteer firefighters has shown that the risk of Post-Traumatic Stress syndrome is significantly higher for those with the most frequent involvement with distressing incidents and the highest levels of cumulative trauma exposure. Volunteer firefighters frequently exposed to such situations face a significant risk of suffering mental health issues.

Given the community’s reliance on volunteer firefighters, the implications of the current situation also have a wider impact. Already, many organisations – not just those working in emergency services – are finding it increasingly challenging to recruit and retain new volunteers. It will become even more difficult to do so if potential volunteers gain a sense that there is insufficient health protection available to cover them for the personal risks they will be exposed to.

Aside from integrating volunteer, rural and paid firefighters into one national organisation for the first time, an important objective of the Fire and Emergency New Zealand Act was to ensure that all firefighters across the country were properly and equally resourced and trained for the vital work they carry out, regardless of their status. Since 2017, Fire and Emergency New Zealand has made much progress towards this goal, and a better service is being delivered to the public as a result. But now it is time to recognise the health risks volunteer firefighters are exposed to, in the same way we have always done with paid firefighters and to change the ACC legislation to provide for this.

Volunteer firefighters seldom seek recognition for the work that they do, and they most certainly do not want to be paid for it. But they do expect to be able to carry out their often-dangerous work as safely as possible, and to be properly treated, rehabilitated and compensated for any injuries incurred as they do so. During National Volunteers Week the United Fire Brigades Association has been running an internal “Cheers volunteers!” campaign to acknowledge the contribution and sacrifices volunteer firefighters and their frequently long-suffering families make to serve their communities.

A clear way the wider community could similarly show its support for the work of its volunteer firefighters – who already rank highly amongst the country’s most trusted professions – is to join the UFBA’s campaign for a better deal from ACC for volunteer firefighters.

MY SECOND WEEKLY COLUMN IS ON NEWSROOM.CO.NZ

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