Firefighters 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, which is held together more by firefighters' commitment than any clear rules.
The panel, headed by former Labour minister Paul Swain, has recommended scrapping "confusing" and outdated laws to better reflect firefighters' growing role as all-round emergency respondents.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."
The report follows similar concerns raised in the wake of the 2011 Canterbury earthquake and the Pike River Mine disaster.
Inquiries into both disasters last year found the emergency response had been hampered by a lack of planning and clear leadership.
Despite an increasing 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 panel recommended rewriting existing laws from scratch and adding clear obligations and powers for the Fire Service to respond to any emergency.
"In the event there is no response to a non-fire emergency . . . no one can be held to account for the failure to deliver the service."
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.
Carterton fire chief Wayne Robinson, who has been a volunteer firefighter for 31 years, said the job used to be about putting out blazes, but now fires made up fewer than half the incidents his brigade attended.
Though fear of being sued was not stopping firefighters, better protection was needed, he said.
"If somebody wants to go and sue us, they can."
The report made 55 recommendations, which covered better coordination between emergency services, a fairer fire levy system and more protection for volunteers.
Internal Affairs Minister Chris Tremain, who ordered the review, said the law did need to be changed to better reflect what fire fighters were actually doing.
"The Fire Service has changed," he said.
"They are involved in other emergency incidents and a lot more roadsides than they were before."
He would not rule out any recommendations but said he expected the Government would make some decisions in April.
Fire Service National Commander Paul Baxter said he welcomed the recommendations.
- © Fairfax NZ News
Which do you think is the quote of the year?Related story: Best quotes? Cats, sweat and Aaron Gilmore