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More women now fighting fires

More women now fighting fires

December 2, 2005

If a fire starts or a car crashes in a rural area, it’s increasingly likely that the first firefighter on the scene will be a woman.

More and more women are involved in the running of volunteer fire stations, whether as firefighters, support staff, or Chief Fire Officers.

There are currently more than 700 female volunteer firefighters, comprising about 10 percent of the total volunteer force.

However, in some parts of the country – particularly the eastern North Island – the proportion of women at a station is as high as 60 percent.

Accordingly, the Fire Service is reviewing the way volunteer firefighters are reimbursed for having to be away from their home or job on Fire Service business.

With the International Day of the Volunteer on December 5, the Fire Service is taking the opportunity to publicly acknowledge the work of the 7,500 volunteer firefighters in New Zealand.

Fire Service director of human resources Vince Arbuckle says with 80 percent of the country covered by a volunteer fire brigade, the Fire Service could not function without unpaid members.

“We really value the volunteer force. It’s a dynamic workforce making a contribution to New Zealand society that too often goes unacknowledged.”

Mr Arbuckle says that dynamism is reflected in more women joining their local brigade, and in recognition of this, the Fire Service is looking to introduce reimbursement for childcare costs while on volunteer duty, to make it feasible for more women to get involved.

He says volunteers are currently reimbursed for having to miss work to attend training courses.

However, childcare is not covered.

“Back in the 1980s, when volunteer firefighters were almost without exception men, it made sense to do it this way, but times have changed.

“Reimbursing childcare costs will reflect the fact that in many parts of the country, the people with the time and inclination to serve their community through being a volunteer firefighter are women.

“In effect, it will level the playing field.”

Murupara woman Marea Anderson became a volunteer firefighter in 1988.

She says it was another woman, her cousin, who encouraged her to join the local fire brigade.

“The first exercise I did was a wet exercise (using fire hoses) and I enjoyed that, so I decided to stay on. I didn’t realise I would stay so long.”

Seventeen years later, Maera (Mrs Anderson) is the chief fire officer in the Bay of Plenty town, in charge of a brigade with eight women and eight men.

Maera’s predecessor as chief fire officer was also a woman, and she says having female leaders has encouraged more women to come on board.

She says while they still get the odd surprised reaction when the chief and deputy chief fire officer turn out to be women, the town is right behind their fire brigade.

“The attitude has changed. People here are really proud when they see the truck go past and there’s mostly just women on board.

“The men here don’t have time, with work commitments, so it’s the women who have joined the brigade.”


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