Volunteers quit in Fire Service row

BEN HEATHER
Last updated 05:00 03/12/2012

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The Fire Service has been accused of sweeping complaints under the carpet as another brigade faces allegations of misappropriating funds.

Four firefighters at the Titahi Bay Volunteer Brigade have resigned, including the chief and deputy chief, following claims of missing money and ructions within senior management. It is understood 15 firefighters - all volunteers - remain.

The complaints follow similar financial allegations by Feilding Volunteer Fire Brigade's former deputy fire chief, Graeme Spiers, against his old brigade.

Mr Spiers' complaint - which includes allegations the brigade misrepresented its finances to obtain funding - has sparked an Internal Affairs investigation.

Volunteers at both brigades say they were poorly supported by the Fire Service, which was reluctant to handle their complaints.

The Fire Service was described by several former volunteers as a secretive "old boys' network" intent on sweeping problems under the carpet.

Former volunteers at Titahi Bay said despite changes there remained a lax approach to safety.

Allegations at both brigades were investigated by the Fire Service, which found - despite several regulatory breaches - no evidence of serious wrongdoing.

The Fire Service has refused to release its findings under the Official Information Act. The Dominion Post has referred the request to the Ombudsman.

Fire Service assistant national commander Ian Pickard last week denied the organisation swept problems under the carpet. "That is just absolute nonsense."

The Fire Service encouraged people to come forward with complaints but could not act on allegations, he said. "Allegations are not always truthful. If there had been a blatant breach of the law we would have stood the fire chief down immediately."

Both brigades were now successfully rebuilding, he said.

In a complaint lodged with the Fire Service in June, three volunteers, including the deputy chief, claimed thousands of dollars paid by volunteers for living at the Titahi Bay fire station were not handed over to the Fire Service.

They also accused former fire chief Tony Leighton of driving engines dangerously - resulting in near collisions - and disregarding safety rules. Mr Leighton has denied any wrongdoing.

New Zealand has about 470 urban fire brigades funded through a levy paid by all insured property owners.

However, Mr Pickard did confirm the Titahi Bay review had revealed rule breaches and bad decision-making.

The brigade's accounting was so poor it was not possible to prove whether funds were missing or had been misspent, he said.

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Both brigades were found to have wrongly withheld board payments that should have been transferred to the Fire Service.

No evidence was found to support most of Mr Spiers' allegations, although more "transparency" was needed at the Feilding brigade, Mr Pickard said.

The resignations of Mr Leighton and his deputy, Brian Gardiner, came amid growing tension within the brigade.

In April, Mr Leighton pushed for the Fire Service to sack Mr Gardiner, claiming he was insubordinate and disruptive.

Two months later, Mr Gardiner was one of the three volunteers alleging misappropriation and dangerous driving.

Mr Leighton, who was fire chief for 31 years, told The Dominion Post he was not asked to resign but had retired. "I was getting a bit sick of the back stabbing."

He denied any financial misappropriation and said money collected from boarding firefighters went into a petty cash fund for station maintenance, supplies and food.

The petty cash fund was closed about a year ago after it was revealed the money should have been paid to the Fire Service.

Mr Gardiner said Mr Leighton's accusations against him were "bizarre".

Both men were unhappy with how their complaints were handled, with Mr Gardiner describing the Fire Service as "carpet sweepers".

UNDER FIRE

October 2012: An independent report criticises the Fire Service's response to the 2012 Canterbury earthquake, calling senior management disorganised. It followed a less critical internal report released in 2011.

June 2012: Feilding Volunteer Fire Brigade deputy fire chief Graeme Spiers resigns after 28 years and accuses the brigade of misusing funds. An internal Fire Service report finds no evidence of wrongdoing. An Internal Affairs investigation is continuing.

October 2010: Two firefighters are severely burnt while responding to a chicken coop fire in Taranaki. The Labour Department finds the Fire Service breached Health and Safety laws but does not prosecute.

September 2009: Then North Canterbury fire region manager Ross Ditmer takes charge of a fatal house fire after drinking. A Fire Service investigation and a separate inquiry by a Wellington QC clears him of wrongdoing.

HOW OUR FIRE SERVICE WORKS

The New Zealand Fire Service is governed by a commission and funded through the levy paid by property owners as part of their insurance.

There are 473 urban fire brigades directly funded and overseen by the Fire Service. There are 76 rural fire authorities funded mostly through local rates, but with the oversight of the Fire Service.

The Fire Service owns stations, equipment and engines used by brigades. It has the power to audit brigades and appoint chief and deputy chief fire officers.

Urban fire brigades are overwhelmingly made up of volunteers, with about 8000 compared with 1700 fulltime paid firefighters.

In rural areas, about 3000 volunteers assist a few council staff and contractors.

Volunteers are not paid, but the chief, deputy chief, secretary and treasurer can receive honorarium payment - usually between $500 and $1000 a year.

In August, the Internal Affairs Department announced an inquiry into the Fire Service, which will review both its role and funding.

- The Dominion Post

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