Auckland Provincial Fire Brigades Assn Annual Conference

  • Jack Elder
Internal Affairs

WHITIANGA (speech delivered on Mr Elder's behalf by Roger Estall, Chairman of the Fire Services Commission)

I am sorry I can't be with you today as I wanted in particular to have the opportunity to again encourage the work of the Auckland Provincial service and to make special mention of the work of those brigades and firefighters in Pukekohe and the Hokianga during last month's flash floods.

When as Minister of Civil Defence I visited the Far North the day after the Civil Defence Emergency was declared, I heard at first hand of the outstanding efforts made by brigades and rural fire forces at Panguru, Whirinaki and other nearby communities. It is clear that there are residents of those areas who owe their lives to the efforts of these brigades.

It was terribly sad, therefore, and an undeserved blow, that one of your number should lose the life of her child as a consequence of the emergency conditions. I extend my sympathy to firefighter Elaine Nimmo and her husband.

I have also been briefed on Fire Service operations at Pukekohe. In that community, as in the Far North, the efforts of the brigades continued over many days.

These achievements are even more noteworthy when it is realised that brigades had to contend with road blockages, communications gaps, serious hazards such as flood-borne tree trunks and logs and multiple incidents.

Dealing with such hazards certainly requires courage, but more importantly, it requires care. I was pleased therefore to learn that your work at the flood emergencies was carried out without injury to firefighters. It is a tribute to the officers of the brigades concerned that they led their men and women so well.

Indeed, the time is well due when the Fire Service ceased to have one of the worst health and safety records in New Zealand. All members of the service would do well to reflect on the words of the recently retired National Commander who pointed out that while firefighters must contend with a variety of hazards, Fire Service operations only become dangerous if the work is performed in a dangerous way.

Since your last conference, much as happened in the Fire Service. I want to clearly restate the Government's commitment to the modernisation of New Zealand's fire service. The fundamental objective of working in partnership with our communities, to shift our focus to the top of the cliff and thereby protect New Zealanders and their property, has never changed.

But we're still losing too many lives to fire. Out of 48 fire deaths last year some 32 were in structure fires. And I want to remind you that one of the key objectives of the modernisation process is to reduce fire-related deaths in residential properties by 50 per cent.

It is disappointing therefore that, in terms of our paid workforce, which undoubtedly includes many firefighters with a genuine commitment to the Commission's goal of reducing the number of fires and the consequences of those fires, we have not yet achieved the changes necessary to get that reduction in fire-related deaths.

However, in the volunteer component of the force, I have been pleased to see good progress in respect of my direction to the Commission to give higher spending priority to the legitimate needs of volunteer brigades.

The New Zealand Fire Service is, fundamentally a volunteer service. I am always impressed by the commitment of volunteer brigade members and I have been disappointed to see recent incidents in some cities of attempts by some paid personnel to intimidate volunteers. They do their fellow, more professionally minded paid staff and of course the volunteers, a great disservice. It is unfortunate but inevitable that the changes will have profound effects on some individuals but many people in New Zealand work places deal with change without that type of reaction. I am pleased to learn that the Chief Executive and National Commander will not tolerate this type of unprofessional behaviour.

New Zealand has many types of volunteer organisations. But as a way of signaling my admiration for the work of New Zealand's volunteer brigades, including volunteer rural fire forces, I chose to celebrate International Volunteer Day last December, by spending an afternoon with a volunteer fire brigade. My visit to Graham Booth's Laingholm Brigade was most instructive and showed the professionalism of your work.

I was pleased to see that the best of our new technology is getting out to volunteer brigades and that this is being appreciated. Subsequent to our visit, I have been assured by the Chairman that something is being done also to improve the cut of overalls for women firefighters!

Best wishes for your conference. Again, my regrets that I can't be with you today but I hope to meet with those of you who will be in Invercargill in a couple of weeks for the United Fire Brigades Assn Conference.