Firefighters' role in flux

NOT AGAIN: Another firefighter cat rescue.
NOT AGAIN: Another firefighter cat rescue.

Firegighters spend more time rescuing drivers and stranded pets than dousing flames, a review has found.

The independent review of the Fire Service found serious gaps in New Zealand's emergency response.

It says the service is held together more by firefighters' commitment than any clear rules.

Rodney fire services are no different.

The panel, headed by former Labour minister Paul Swain, has recommended scrapping "confusing" and outdated laws to better reflect firefighters' growing role as all-round emergency respondents.

"The enthusiastic commitment of fire services has masked this unsatisfactory state of affairs for too long and [the panel] recommends it be addressed as a matter of urgency."

Waitemata Fire Area manager Denis O'Donoghue says about two-thirds of all callouts they receive are not fire related.

"It varies a lot with each brigade, but we respond to a number of emergencies including vehicle accidents, machinery accidents, cliff rescues, hazardous substances, natural disaster-related incidents and a fair amount of false alarms too," Mr O'Donoghue says.

Despite an increasing public reliance on the Fire Service during emergencies, firefighters are not legally obliged to attend or plan for anything other than a fire.

They can also be legally liable if a non-fire rescue goes wrong.

The number of fire callouts has been dropping steadily for years, while the number of other emergencies attended is rising.

This has been attributed to growing community expectation and a reduction in other emergency services in some rural communities.

In 2012, a firefighter was about four times more likely to have attended an emergency that did not involve fire.

These could be anything from rescuing a cat stuck up a tree to cutting people out of a crushed vehicle.

"The more industrialised an area is, with more people, there is a higher propensity of non-fire emergencies," Mr O'Donoghue says.

He says while some brigades have embraced the change within the service, others have not.

"Our mission is now to reduce the incidents of fire, and provide a professional response to emergencies.

"Emergency services are getting a lot closer and working as an alliance."

The Fire Service is heavily dependent on volunteers with 2000 paid staff across the country, and 12,000 volunteers.

"Volunteerism in New Zealand is such a gold mine of value," Mr O'Donoghue says.

"I don't think everyone understands the value of it. We must nurture it. If we don't we will lose something very precious. There is more pressure being put on volunteers than ever before."

The report made 55 recommendations, which covered better co-ordination between emergency services, a fairer fire levy system and more protection for volunteers.

Internal Affairs Minister Chris Tremain, who ordered the review, says he expects the Government will make some decisions in April.

Rodney Times