Murray Dudfield: Is the new fire and emergency service worth the money?

The rural fire that spread over Christchurch's Port Hills in February. The current arrangement for dealing with fires in ...
John Hunt

The rural fire that spread over Christchurch's Port Hills in February. The current arrangement for dealing with fires in rural areas connects risk ownership with risk control. Those who face the risk from rural fire have a strong incentive to find the right balance between fire prevention and fire suppression.

OPINION: In a few months rural and urban fire fighting will be joined in one organisation, Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ).

In so doing the Government will bring together two very different approaches to dealing with fire and the associated risks.

At the same time those who insure their homes, vehicles and commercial buildings face a 40 per cent increase in the levy they pay to fund fire and many other non-fire related services to be provided by FENZ. The Minister of Internal Affairs, Peter Dunne, and the Government will have to shake the magic money tree very hard to find the money to finance that increase.

Is this dramatic change wise and will the funding of FENZ be fair and reasonable?

At a time when the cost and incidence of rural fire and urban fire are falling It is pretty clear the answer in both cases is no. The costs of both rural and urban fire should be going down, not going up.

Currently urban fire is dealt with by the NZ Fire Service with their fire stations and big red trucks. Their service requires lots of paid firefighters in the large urban areas and lots of very costly assets. A professional service is required to deal with the risks of fire in cities and towns.

Rural fire has few costly assets or equipment and even fewer paid employees. Rural firefighting and risk management are instead carried out by those with an interest in rural fire – forest owners, farmers, rural communities with rural volunteer fire forces, local bodies, and government departments such as the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Conservation. The Fire Service is also one of these rural fire stakeholders.

Key features of rural fire are voluntary co-operation between stakeholders who pool firefighters, managers and equipment to deal with issues as they arise.

This approach directly connects risk ownership with risk control and those who face the risk from rural fire have a strong incentive to find the right balance between fire prevention and fire suppression.

That's why rural fire is also low cost, at just $32.9 million for rural fire authorities and government agencies like the Department of Conservation. The people with the most to lose from unwanted fire manage the day-to-day risks and fight fire when it breaks out.

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Both approaches have been successful in New Zealand. The areas affected by unwanted rural fires have diminished steadily over the past 20 years and risk management in cities and towns has reduced the risk of urban fire.

Given their separate success it makes sense to join the two together, right?

Over the past 20 years this question has been asked many times. Each time this path has been suggested it has foundered on the objections of rural fire stakeholders who understand the differences between the two approaches and that rural fire is different from urban fire.

A number of other countries have merged the two approaches to fire and risk management expecting great benefits. Inevitably, the benefits have not been realised and the costs of the emerged approach have soared.

We are already projected to head down this track in New Zealand.

The budget for FENZ in 2017-18 requires more than $115m in new funding, a 30 per cent increase on the 2017 Fire Service Commission budget of $388m.

Funding this increase requires Dunne and the Government to shake the magic money tree by increasing the fire levy on building and vehicle insurance by 40 per cent.

All homeowners will pay more – about $36 a year – as will all vehicle owners. But the big costs will be borne by the owners of commercial buildings, most of them located in urban areas well away from any risk of rural fire. Some face rises of hundreds of thousands of dollars – all to pay for a set of poorly defined benefits in largely rural areas.

Mergers of this kind are supposed to capture benefits and be fair for all parties. The merger of urban and rural fire is, however, a one-size-fits-all model that takes the high-cost urban-fire approach, applies it to rural areas and adds greater burdens on those prudent enough to take out insurance.

It also denies the past success of a localised forest and rural fire management structure that has seen the continuous fall in the area and value of land affected by unwanted rural fires and the value of the voluntary cooperation between stakeholders that has driven this trend.

It is too late to halt the merger but it is not too late to seek answers to some important questions, particularly when Peter Dunne is shaking the magic money tree so hard to pay for his changes.

Why, for example, does the new approach require such a large increase in the fire levy when the incidence and costs of fire are falling, not rising? And why do the owners of commercial buildings in urban areas face the largest increases in costs to pay for the fire management in forest and rural areas?

Murray Dudfield, ONZM, is a board member of the Otago Rural Fire Authority. He was a National Rural Fire Officer from 1990-2014 and on the board of the Australia Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre from 2007-2014.   


 - The Dominion Post


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