"Direction of Rural Fire Service"/Forest and Rural Fire Assn annual conference

  • Jack Elder
Civil Defence

Speech by Hon Jack Elder, Minister of Internal Affairs

4 August 1999
(delivered on Minister's behalf by Pieter Burghout, Manager Fire and Building Policy Group, Department of Internal Affairs)

[Opens with - TVNZ footage of Alexandra rural fires for few minutes]

It is clear from the images just seen that fires in rural and forest areas can cause enormous damage. I see my role as Minister of Internal Affairs and the role of the Government being to ensure the proper legislative framework and infrastructure to best manage that rural fire risk.


The Fire Service Commission's Strategic Direction

I was sorry to receive the resignation of Roger Estall in May. He provided a vision and commitment to fire safety that has gone largely unacknowledged. However I was more than pleased to have a person of the calibre of Dame Margaret Bazley prepared to Chair the Commission. Dame Margaret is one of the top public sector managers with a long and distinguished career of public service and I am looking forward to her contribution towards reducing the incidence and consequences of fire.

For those of you who don't know, the Fire Service Commission has just released a new strategic directions document. I support the strategic direction the Commission is taking, with its emphasis on:

· Fire Prevention, Fire Safety and Fire Outcomes
· Resource reallocation and "Value for Money" Expenditure
· having a culture of continuous improvement & reform
· Strong Governance and Management

Towards a Best Risk Management Approach

· There needs to be a continued move from emphasis on fire suppression, to better management of fire prevention, education and awareness of fire issues - the "All Hazards Approach"
· Although the number of rural fires has shown a strong increase in recent years (from around 700 in 1986/87 to over 3,000 in 1998/99) the number of hectares burnt has not increased so sharply, even though we are again in El Nino conditions. This points to an improved preparedness level and much faster response rate. That momentum needs to be maintained. (graph)
· The Rural Fire Management Code of Practice (introduced in 1991) is currently being reviewed. It provides for rural fire authorities to have an approved fire management plan and meet minimum NZQA standards for training and equipment. Those minimum standards are essential to ensure the safety of rural people. While each authority is currently audited every 5 years - there are those who argue this should occur more frequently (MAF, for example, has suggested every 3 years).
· It is very much an appropriate role for the NRFA to set nationally consistent guidelines and standards. It is also critical that all stakeholders are properly involved in the process and buy into the outcomes as much as possible.
· Contingency planning needs to be used more effectively as a tool (as it was in Alexandra). It is, for e.g. necessary to have competent resources available at all times - as voluntary resources quickly become stretched.

The legislation - cost recovery

· The cost recovery sections of the Forest & Rural Fires Act were drafted with a policy of recovering costs from those found responsible for a fire, or from those who benefit. Recent cases give some cause for thought, requiring some consideration as to:

· why cost recovery doesn't apply in other situations, for example, lost trampers who incur large costs in search & rescue?
· why in some cases we levy the rural landowners who benefit from firefighting efforts, while in other cases we recover costs from an individual?

Mooted integration of urban and rural fire services

· Rural fire can be a friendly tool as well as a menace - its management in forests and on farms is a skill held by those who work these lands.
· Vegetation fires in rural areas are fundamentally different from structural fires in an urban environment. Each situation demands different sets of competencies, resources and management skills. Over the last 3 years, rural New Zealand has experienced around 3,000 uncontrolled fires per year
· Currently, many communities have their fire services provided by more than one service provider i.e. the Fire Service for the urban area and the Rural Fire Authority for the surrounding rural lands and some small communities. However there is a high degree of informal cooperation and the Fire Service does attend fire incidents in rural fire districts wherever it considers it can be of assistance. This is especially so in the case of structural fires, as its resources are more suited to this type of activity
· In these situations, there is a need to address interface issues to ensure that resources are not being duplicated and the interface land management issue addressed. Some Rural Fire Authorities have developed agreed partnerships with the local Fire Service. These arrangements should be further encouraged to meet the needs of small communities. The 1989 Hensley report into Rural Fire Services in New Zealand concluded that local issues should be addressed by local solutions
· The Internal Affairs and Local Government Committee's Report on its Inquiry into the Fire Service Commission recommended that "the Government review the administration and funding of rural fire services"
· The Government's response was that "given the isolated nature of most rural areas, it would be expensive and difficult, if not impossible, to ensure that rural areas had a service matching that of urban districts. The distances between many rural properties make different response times almost inevitable"

Do Rural People pay more for their fire services?

· While some argue that rural people pay more for fire services, this is a very debatable question. Funding of Volunteer Rural Fire Forces and Rural Fire Authority functions are generally from:
(i) territorial authority rates;
(ii) grants provided through the National Rural Fire Authority grant assistance scheme (obtained from the fire insurance levy). E.g. for the last 6 years the NRFA has provided $3.8M (in total) for protective clothing and fire fighting equipment - in addition to funding provided for training, research, advice and provision of fire weather information;
(iii) payments from the Rural Fire Fighting Fund to Rural Fire Authorities to meet the cost of firefighting for fires over $1,000. Funding for the Rural Fire Fighting Fund is provided largely from the fire insurance levy;
(iv) local fund raising and donations.
· By comparison, the following funding streams are used for the protection of urban Fire Districts:
(i) funding of the NZ Fire Service through a fire insurance levy;
(ii) provision of water supplies by the local authority through ratepayer funding;
(iii) administration of fire prevention bylaws by the local authority;
(iv) installation by building owners of in-built sprinkler systems
· One clear anomaly is the fact that not all properties are covered by insurance in an urban Fire District, but all properties receive the same service. However in a rural area the majority of fire management costs of local territorial authorities is with the ratepayer. All private properties are rateable and therefore pay a contribution to funding of their Rural Fire Authority.
· It could be stated that there is inequity with funding of fire services to communities within urban fire districts. E.g. the cost of the NZ Fire Service providing fire services between two districts, one protected by volunteers and the other by paid employees, can be vastly different, even though the two districts have a similar fire risk
· There exists a variation of funding levels between the different authorities. Some provide for a fire suppression capability in small communities which might have only 1 or 2 fire incidents per year, whereas others take a broader view and conduct rigorous risk assessments before providing fire suppression capabilities

Training requirements (additional qualification requirements)

· Fire fighters, including those who manage fire suppression and prescribed burning, will be trained to the competencies on the NZQA Framework and will put safety as the first priority on any occasion.
· Fire authorities will work with the NRFA to establish a means of determining the physical and mental fitness of all personnel who are involved in fire suppression and prescribed burning. All personnel will be required to meet that minimum level of fitness.
· I support the need for training and competencies in firefighting capability, and I consider it appropriate that they be brought into the Code of Practice.

Ownership of the responsibilities associated with the use of fire

· Partnership approach between the NRFA and rural fire authorities. The NRFA makes information available and keeps an overview e.g. suggesting restrictions
· The general public and landowners will have a better understanding of the duty of care associated with the use of fire for recreation and management purposes
· Fire authorities will be more active in meeting their responsibilities
· I will be reminding the Fire Service Commission as the National Rural Fire Authority of their strategic responsibility to undertake public education in this area

What initiatives are currently being undertaken?

· Revision of the Code of Practice
· Amendments to the Forest & Rural Fire Regulations
· The development of urban/rural fire interface guidelines by the NRFA, which will assist fire authorities with rural fire management. It will cover areas such as the defence of structures from fuel hazards. More effective and efficient directions will arise from the initiatives, resulting in cost-effective practices.
· The new Coordinated Incident Management System (CIMS) was launched last November and was successfully used during the Alexandra fires this year. It is designed to ensure the best management of an emergency incident by involving liaison with other emergency service providers and thereby providing a unified approach.
· A cost benefit analysis system is being undertaken - which will consider the reduction in number of rural fire authorities (RFA's) where appropriate. Rationalisation of RFA's would provide for improved management of risk, and better preparedness and mitigation. But this is essentially a decision for individual RFA's, in response to the risks, costs and benefits faced by them.
· Developing guidelines for the management and use of aircraft in vegetation fire fighting
· Development of a Wildfire Threat Analysis (WTA) System which identifies the level of threat a particular area faces from wildfire by digitised mapping and colour coding

Research & Technology

· A key input the NRFA can make in this area is promoting and funding research that benefits all within the rural community, while leaving scope for individuals to pursue their own research needs where appropriate. The Forest & Rural Fire Research Project will be producing outcomes to provide research-based management decisions. This is a joint project developed in partnership between the NRFA, DOC, NZ Forest Owners' Association and Local Government New Zealand. It is currently developing fire behaviour models for different fuel types, and climatic analysis.
· The Fire Weather Monitoring System provides rural fire authorities around the country with automatic daily data on fire danger conditions, from over 120 Remote Automatic Weather Stations (RAWS). Its data feeds into the NZ Fire Danger Rating System - a key management tool for determining fire season status and for placing conditions on fire permits for land clearing by prescribed burns
· This information greatly assists in areas such as preparedness planning, risk assessment, establishing seasonal trends and predicting potential fire behaviour
· Digitised data bases and mapping will be the key means for advancing rural fire management planning and implementation
· Collection of fire statistics - will provide RFA's with the information and history they need to better target rural fire management
· The NRFA is integrating its fire statistical information with that of the Fire Service, so they both share the same database
· Use of the Kiwi Fire Training Simulator - recreates the same high pressure environment that those involved in real fires experience

Summary - Directions of the Rural Fire Service

· Continued application of best practice technology and risk management disciplines to reduce the incidence and consequence of rural fire
· Continued improvement in standards and guidelines to ensure the appropriate levels of preparedness and responsiveness
· Continued seeking out of structural, operational, and financial efficiencies e.g. role and size of rural fire authorities

Conclusion - Better Management of Rural Fire Risk

· I am supportive of the gains and improvements made by the NRFA in the last 10 years, and I am looking forward to continuation of this forward thinking and management