Firemen see red on purple

21:31, May 01 2014
firefighters, crash
EXPLOITED: Gone are the days of firefighters just fighting fires, or attending emergencies like the car crash pictured. They are increasingly being sent out to medical calls and some volunteers feel they are not properly trained and now feel exploited.

Firefighters have stopped turning up to some emergency calls as they become increasingly frustrated at having to attend more and more medical callouts to pick up the slack for St John Ambulance.

The cause is a memorandum of understanding between St John and the Fire Service that has been in place since 2005, but was fully implemented in December 2013 and is currently being updated.

The Fire Service, which has a more extensive network than St John, now co-responds to all "purple" or critical incidents, of which St John receives about 11 per day.

It has frustrated many of the Waikato's volunteer fire chiefs, with some saying St John need to "get their act together".

In Matamata, volunteer fire brigade chief Kevin Curtis says volunteers feel exploited.

The number of medical callouts has more than doubled in the past six months, he said, and many of the "purple" calls turn out to be minor.


"We aren't trained for it and the guys aren't too happy about going to them because they're not happy with what could happen . . . and we can't do a lot."

They're trained in basic first aid and carry oxygen and a defibrillator, he said.

Recently they responded to 11 medical callouts in a 10-day period, he said.

"To tell you the truth, my guys stopped turning up - they don't want to go to them. [They're asking] why are we getting called to these? [And saying] we don't want to go to them."

In one recent case, a piece of steel fell on a worker and a single-crewed ambulance turned up, he said. One of his volunteers then drove the ambulance to Waikato Hospital while the ambulance officer worked on the patient.

In another case they responded to a drunk who had started convulsing.

"It's not supporting volunteerism in volunteer fire brigades in some areas . . . when we have employers saying, ‘What are you guys doing going to a medical call? You're a fire brigade, what's going on?' One day the employer will say, ‘What is it? You're not going'."

Cambridge Volunteer Fire Brigade chief Don Gerrand doesn't believe attending medical emergencies is what his members signed up for.

"It's not what they want to do and to have it forced upon them and to be told it's good for you and you'll like it, I don't think the national commander is listening. He seems to have some sort of mandate that we don't know about."

Huntly Volunteer Fire Brigade chief Craig Bush said the agreement might be effective in some areas and for brigades that train specifically for it.

Yet he agreed with Curtis and Gerrand.

It causes "disruption" and results in far more calls, he said.

"Quite frankly, the ambulance need to get their act together - that's part of the problem.

"I think we all agree there's a place for it but in areas such as ours when you're so close to major cities and there's well-stocked ambulance stations, we're not too keen on doing the work for them."

In the past week they had five medical calls - one hoax, one death and the remainder were serious or minor.

"[The brigade] are all of the same opinion. We don't really want to be doing it. It's not our job, it's not our business, it's not what we're trained to do. We don't want more training aimed at that forced upon us."

Waikato district fire commander Roy Breeze said they were working on solutions for busy volunteer stations, such as smaller response vehicles and calling fewer staff for medical callouts.

The memorandum of understanding is also in the process of being updated and a series of issues around that needs to be ironed out.

Nigel Lilley, vice-president of the United Fire Brigades' Association, whose members are 80 per cent volunteers, said they were promised representation up to four months ago on a working party designed to solve those issues "but nothing's happened".

He called on the Fire Service to act quickly and get the problem-solving under way.

St John spokesman Peter Tranter said work on updating the memorandum has been ongoing over the past year.

A request for comment from the Fire Service was met with a press release that had already been released regarding the memorandum review process and a comment saying there was no update on the situation.


Memorandum of understanding between St John and the New Zealand Fire Service In place since 2005.

Fully implemented in December 2013.

Outlines the role of the Fire Service when responding to medical emergencies.

The Fire Service now co-responds to all 'purple' or critical incidents.

St John receives approximately 11 of these calls each day (about 1 per cent of the total emergency incidents each year).

Jobs they're dealing with

Matamata Volunteer Fire Brigade recently responded to 11 medical callouts in a 10-day period.

In one case, a piece of steel fell on a worker and a single-crewed ambulance turned up. A volunteer firefighter then had to drive the ambulance to Waikato Hospital while the paramedic worked on the injured man.

They have also had to treat drunks, with only basic first aid training, who had started convulsing. 

Waikato Times