Annual Conference of the Forest and Rural Fire Association

  • Jack Elder
Internal Affairs

Thank you Mr Farrow, ladies and gentlemen.

It is an honour to be invited today to officially open the 1998 conference of the 1998 Forest and Rural Fire Association.

It is very pleasing to be at the second annual conference I have attended since becoming Minister of Internal Affairs.

A lot of water has flowed through the pumps since then.

Over the year, the New Zealand public has seen graphic television images of the terrible power of rural fires internationally.

Australia, the United States and Europe have all suffered badly from fires sweeping through dry countryside and destroying homes, property and lives.

And in what must be the ultimate in rural fires, the devastating Indonesian blazes set new standards in human stupidity and greed.

So the Government and the public have been given a very vivid reminder of the potential economic and human cost of rural fires.

Indeed, New Zealand has long been aware of the potential disaster fire poses for our forestry industry.

The 'trusty pointer' has been warning of fire risk for decades now.

But this awareness has not always been matched by the necessary commitment.

Rural and forest fire brigades and parties have often been the cinderellas of fire fighting, making do with cast-off equipment and engines that are well past their use-by date.

That is why the Government is such a staunch supporter of the Fire Service modernisation plans.

When I asked Fire Service Commission chairman, Roger Estall, and the other Commission members, Doug Martin and Brian Stanley, to accept the appointments, my aim was to make sure the available resources were used most effectively to improve safety and protect property.

In Mr Estall's letter of appointment as chairman, I made it clear the Commission should concentrate on the Government's strategic goals relating to the Fire Service.

In particular, Mr Estall was instructed to ensure that "investment in the fire safety and fire suppression needs of Rural Fire Authorities is not reduced, and that the Commission gives high recognition to its responsibilities as the National Rural Fire Authority".

The aim of the modernisation is to reduce the number of fires, the damage they do, and the number of lives lost to them.

To achieve this, the Fire Service aims to put the resources where they are most needed. I am pleased to see that over the year new equipment has been made available to rural fire authorities and volunteer fire brigades.

I can't promise everyone their own water bomber, but I can assure you the Government is aware of your needs, and supports the valuable work you do.

You may have noticed that the Fire Service modernisation has attracted some media interest.

This came as no surprise to me.

It is a fact of life that the New Zealand media thrives on negativity and conflict. The good news about the fire service modernisation, the new fire stations and engines, more money made available for maintenance and more resources for volunteers, receives almost zero attention compared with a protest at Parliament.

However, I am confident that when the reforms are fully in place, and the public sees the improvement in public safety, the current flurry of ill-informed media comment will end.

In developing the modernisation plan, I am pleased the Commission has endeavoured at all times to liaise with interested parties, and that it has been guided by the submissions on the proposals.

I believe the changes the Commission has made in response to them will mean the modernisation programme will earn the confidence of the community.

The rural community has already begun to see the benefits of modernisation.

The Commission has invested heavily in technology and research and this has already paid handsome dividends.

El Nino is a handy weather phenomenum on which to blame almost anything that goes wrong in life. But when it comes to fire fighting, it poses a big problem is certain parts of country, with drought providing perfect conditions for fires.

But despite the sharply higher fire risk, the network of fire weather reporting stations around the country has enabled a much more effective response to the threat.

Despite the vastly higher fire risk, the area burnt was actually lower than the previous year.

It is logical to conclude that had the modernisation not been undertaken, the consequences of fires over the summer would have been far more severe, with much more serious economic consequences for the country.

Last year in my address to you in Dunedin I stressed the importance of men and women prepared to volunteer their time and energy in the cause of rural fire safety. And I want to thank them all again this year.

The same is also true of volunteers in urban brigades. Their service is not always recognised and certainly has not been a focus of public debate in recent years.

In the modernisation of the Fire Service the role of volunteer fire fighters will receive greater recognition in the Fire Service. They will also receive more financial support and training.

The reforms will not affect the Service's role in other aspects of emergency management. The Fire Service Act makes it clear there is a role in other emergency situations if it can render assistance. This has not been removed by the modernisation.

Another important initiative is the establishment of an independent unit, the Operational Performance Review Unit, to monitor the changes.

The Unit will monitor the overall effectiveness of the Fire Service's operational performance after the reforms are in place, including the efficiency of the new crewing levels.

It will also have the capacity to investigate complaints, should this be necessary.

In conclusion I would just like to reiterate that the modernisation of the Fire Service will be good news for the thousands of men and women around the country who volunteer their service as fire fighters or who service on forest fire crews.

On behalf of the Government I would especially like to welcome our visitors from Australia and hope that both sides of the Tasman will benefit from the exchange of information and expertise.

I know you have been meeting all morning, so it seems a bit pointless me declaring the conference open, nevertheless, it gives me great pleasure to formally cut the ribbon, and wish you all an informative and enjoyable conference.