Fire Service grapples with age

JOELLE DALLY
Last updated 05:00 24/06/2014
Firefighters
DEAN KOZANIC/ Fairfax NZ

GENERATION GAP: ‘‘Young’’ firefighter Willie Watters, 32, is learning the ropes from the likes of veteran station officer Doug Platt, who at 62 is fighting fit and will continue putting out fires as long as he is up to the job.

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The Fire Service calendar may feature fine young specimens but, in reality, the average Kiwi firefighter is more likely to be sporting grey hair.

The average age of paid firefighters has reached 46 years. One in 20 are over the age of 65 and almost half are over 45.

The organisation is pushing for younger staff to enter leadership roles to counter its ageing work force, mostly driven by baby-boomers nearing retirement age and a low attrition rate.

The Fire Service takes about 40 paid recruits a year, most of whom are in their 30s or older.

There is no forced retirement so, provided firefighters passed the physical competency assessment, they can work on the trucks regardless of their age.

Christchurch Metro area manager David Stackhouse said staff recruited during a nationwide push in the 1970s were now "dropping by the wayside".

"It's about bringing through a new echelon of leaders. Succession planning is high on the agenda. We do have enough [recruits] coming through but it takes a lot to qualify them," Stackhouse said.

It took five to seven years to identify someone capable of being an officer.

"They've got to make decisions in life and death situations so they need to be up to speed," Stackhouse said.

Firefighters near the end of their careers were often qualified to use aerials or in co-ordination roles.

"You can teach management but leadership is harder to master," Stackhouse said.

"Any of the guys on the trucks are mentally and physically tuned into the job."

 

BY THE NUMBERS

46 – average age of paid NZ firefighters.

5 per cent – of firefighters over the age of 65.

47 per cent – of the work force is over 45.

60 per cent – of executive officers are nearing retirement age.

1750 – paid firefighters.

8000 – volunteer firefighters nationwide. 

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