Speech to the United Fire Brigades’ Association 2014 Annual General Meeting and Conference

  • Peter Dunne
Internal Affairs

Tēna koutou katoa. Thank you for inviting me to Tauranga to speak to your annual conference. My thanks also to Nga Potiki for doing the Mihi Whakatau.

I am genuinely delighted to be here and to see a range of fire services working together to successfully organise an event of this size. I understand that firefighters both urban and rural, career and volunteer, all worked together on the host committee, the Western Bays of the Bay of Plenty Brigades. I commend you all for your efforts.

I would especially like to acknowledge the following people from the UFBA, here today:

  • your President, Bryan Styles and Vice President, Mark Adie;
  • your Chief Executive Officer, George Verry;
  • Deputy Chair of the UFBA Board, Nigel Lilley and Board members Bill Butzbach, Alan Kittlety
  • and Glenn Williams;
  • Rick Braddock, Chairperson of the UFBA Board, and Patron of the UFBA, Garry Stanley.

Welcome also to past presidents and honorary life members of the UFBA.

Lastly, thank you to Tauranga City Mayor, Stuart Crosby, for his warm welcome to your beautiful city. Tauranga is a fitting place to hold this year’s conference, as you celebrate the 50-year career of Tauranga’s Assistant Area Manager, Graeme Easton. Congratulations to you, Graeme. 

Brigades all over New Zealand appreciate your efforts over the past half century. Now, of course, Tauranga’s fire services are very different to when its first Fire Inspector, Mr Asher, was appointed in 1882. I am told this is the same year two fire engines arrived, and a second community meeting managed to muster the grand total of 10 volunteer firefighters.

Preserving the fire services’ history is the focus of the Fire Services Historical Society. I understand that the Society has collected over a hundred years’ worth of trucks, tenders, uniforms, historical records and films. This collection is housed in a dedicated area at Ferrymead in Christchurch.

I would like to acknowledge the efforts of those volunteers who are preserving the valuable links between the past and present. I understand that the Society and the New Zealand Fire Service are working together to ensure a more secure footing for this initiative. I look forward to hearing more about this work.

The preservation of the history of all our Fire Services is important, and a particular area of interest for me. From two engines in 1882, today the Tauranga fire services have 14.

Tauranga also boasts 50 volunteer and 52 career firefighters who attend approximately 1,600 calls annually. These firefighters help protect a population of more than 120,000 people, as well as New Zealand's largest export shipping port, heavy industrial businesses, state highways, residential and rural areas. 

The range of work carried out by the Tauranga Fire Brigade is by no means unusual – firefighters around the country now do so much more than fight fires. In a demanding environment, it is important to be able to take time out from the coal-face to discuss important themes, voice opinions and connect with one another.

This year’s conference theme: Healthy living and healthy minds is just as important - to create healthy brigades. I was interested to learn that your keynote speaker tomorrow will be Dr Tom Mulholland from the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Auckland. Like you, he enjoys a challenge and has had an extremely eventful life. I have no doubt he will have plenty of interesting and useful advice.

Conferences like this are really beneficial in gaining new tools and perspectives to deal with the ever-evolving nature of your work. I have been acknowledging for some time that responding to change is a necessary and inevitable part of being involved with New Zealand’s fire services. 

As Minister, I am keen to ensure that all parts of our fire services are well placed and adept in dealing with change. One thing that will not change, however, is that volunteers are an essential part of our fire services.

I have visited many fire brigades in my role as Minister, and am an Honorary Member of the Newlands Volunteer Fire Brigade. I have always been impressed by the dedication, skills and work ethic of volunteers right across New Zealand. The sacrifices you make in terms of time away from your families and workplaces in order to train for, and respond to emergency situations, are greatly appreciated. 

And it is important that the Fire Service continues to benefit from volunteers. I am also impressed by the dedication and measures that the UFBA and the Fire Service Commission take to actively support and sustain the volunteer fire base. 

These initiatives include the Fire Service’s Sustainability Project, designed to support volunteers and give them a voice. For example, more volunteer support officers are being provided with enhanced training. 

Volunteer officers are being provided with tools such as the Volunteer Dashboard, which help manage brigades more easily. And we need to ensure that our volunteer brigades are well equipped and resourced – after all, you are the bulk of firefighters in New Zealand.

The UFBA also has a long history of running competitive challenges, aimed at helping you polish your skills in a competitive environment. They include the Drivers’ Challenges, Waterway Challenges, and Road Crash Rescue Challenges, as well as the recently-introduced Combat Challenge. These are all designed to test your fitness and encourage camaraderie with your firefighting colleagues. 

The challenges also help educate the public about the incredible strength, endurance and dedication it takes to be a volunteer firefighter - not to mention the commitment to fitness required. Competitors demonstrate vividly that the people charged with helping us in emergencies are absolutely prepared, physically and emotionally, to do so in whatever dangerous and hazardous conditions they may encounter.

Another way in which the UFBA demonstrates its commitment to creating a stable environment for volunteers and new recruits are its workshops on leadership and governance. These aim to further enhance your experience as volunteer firefighters, by developing important skills in running the brigades effectively, alongside your core firefighting skills. This also helps to ensure the continuing health and sustainability of fire brigades throughout New Zealand. 

The UFBA also works with me, with the Commission, and with the Department of Internal Affairs to raise issues of importance to volunteers. Their efforts and contribution to improving fire services are valued by all of us.

I mentioned earlier that today’s fire services have changed significantly over time. The current fire service legislation dates back to the 1970s, when a firefighter’s role was largely to put out fires. That legislation in the main nationalised the Fire Service, but did not really address the basic structure which has not changed oo much since the 1940s. 

The legislation has not been overhauled since 1975. However, as you will be well aware, activities and expectations have evolved considerably, meaning we now have very different-looking fire services.

Fire services today deliver a wide range of non-fire functions, crucial to community safety, but which are not mandated for in the current legislation. These include rescuing people from car crashes, dealing with severe weather events, and urban search and rescue. 

As you know, in 2012 the Government set up a Review Panel to provide advice on how New Zealanders can have a 21st century fire service, that operates seamlessly with the roles performed by other emergency service providers. This resulted in the independent report known as the Swain Report. 

Due to the election date being brought forward, the legislation process which aimed to address the mandate and governance issues unfortunately lost a bit of momentum. Parliament had to progress higher priority legislation at the time. However I want you to know that progressing the review is a high priority for me. 

I am working on getting things back in motion and in front of Cabinet in the very near future. My officials are continuing to look at the issues and have released on the Department’s website a report that they commissioned on the sources of funding and services provided.

The Commission has also started to implement the recommendations of the Swain Report. The positive result of this minor hold-up is that now we have had time to take a step back and take a fresh look at whether there are additional things that will help firefighters and the community, in addition to the Swain Report. The Swain Report received a high level of support across stakeholders, and I am hoping to now capture any outstanding ideas, suggestions or concerns you and other stakeholders may have. 

In response to the Swain Report’s recommendations, chief executives of the emergency agencies have started meeting to discuss strategic coordination. The review is the perfect opportunity to support that coordination work. This will allow us to take positive steps to provide for the sustainability of the volunteer firefighter base.  

I would also like the review to use what has been learnt from the Swain Report and identify additional progress that can be made in making our fire services fit for purpose in the 21st century. Reform is long overdue, and always arouses fears of change, but I know we have acceptance for change from stakeholders across the sector. That support is essential in building the understanding, momentum and buy-in required for reform to happen.

We need to continue to work together in a constructive way to ensure we have the efficient and effective fire fighting forces that we need for New Zealand. The review I’m proposing will be broad-based, covering rural and urban fire services, the volunteer framework and their associated governance structures. I’ll be working through the terms of reference for the review with my Cabinet colleagues, and we’d like to get the process underway in the next few months.

I urge you all to continue to be involved throughout the course of the review, and to make your views known either via your Association representatives, who my officials will be engaging with, or during the public consultation period next year. We need your specialised skills and knowledge.

Finally, let me thank you again for the selfless work you do in our communities. It is enormously valued and appreciated. All New Zealanders can be proud of our firefighters – they are world leaders, and we are focused on ensuring they are properly set up to serve our communities in the 21st century. This means being sure that our workforce, both paid and volunteer, is safe, healthy, and fully capable in a modern environment. 

I have no doubt this conference will give you many ideas on how to achieve this that you can take home to your brigades. I wish you a successful conference.