Keynote address: Forest and Rural Fire Association NZ AGM, Crowne Plaza Hotel, Auckland

  • Peter Dunne
Internal Affairs

Good morning, Kia ora tatou everyone.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak at your conference again.

Firstly, I want to acknowledge a few people here with us today:

  • Dr Nicki Crauford, Deputy Chair, Fire and Emergency NZ Board
  • Kevin Ihaka, Chair of FRFANZ and the Management Committee members
  • Rhys Jones, Chief Executive of Fire and Emergency NZ
  • Kevin O’Connor, National Manager Rural
  • Paul McGill, National Commander Urban
  • David Strong, Integration Director

This time is particularly special, as we recognise the 30th Anniversary of the Forest and Rural Fire Association (FRFANZ).

Over three decades FRFANZ has played an important role helping to improve the effectiveness of rural firefighting, fire prevention and protection in this country.

As the representative body for people and organisations of the rural fire sector, it has also provided service medals, gold stars for more than 25 years of service, and promoted rural fire competitions.

I understand this capacity grew from the fact that at the time of FRFANZ’s establishment in 1987, volunteer rural fire forces were ineligible to join the United Fire Brigades Association (UFBA).

How times have changed.

Just over a year ago, I was delighted to be present at the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between FRFANZ and the UFBA.

With the stroke of a pen, this country’s volunteer firefighters gained a single united voice, as they prepared to join a single united organisation – Fire and Emergency New Zealand.

This MOU enabled both parties to constructively engage on behalf of their members in the ‘co-design’ process that has led to the creation of our new fire and emergency organisation.

It is an entirely fitting arrangement, given volunteer firefighters face similar challenges, in spite of the very different nature of urban and rural firefighting.

‘Co-design’ is a highly-progressive way of working that recognises the skills, knowledge, and expertise of our workforce.

I acknowledge the Fire and Emergency Board, represented by Dr Nicki Crauford today, for its role in driving this approach, alongside the Department of Internal Affairs, and the Transition team.

A phenomenal amount of work has been undertaken to establish one new organisation out of many, in just under a year, all with input from its operational workforce.

I understand over 950 events and workshops have been held with the sector over the past 12 months, involving 9000 people who had input on everything from interim command and control policies, to the new organisation’s identity. 

This approach, and the shared goodwill between all parties, is what sets Fire and Emergency NZ aside from previous attempts at this kind of change, at home or abroad.

To repeat what I said at the Day One launch in Ashburton – it is my firm belief we are only here due to the collaborative spirit that the fire services sector, its key stakeholders, and partner organisations have embraced at every step of this process.

The support, the hard work, the determination, and the enthusiasm of so many, has put paid to the idea that this could ever be a takeover of any one group by another.

I would like to pay tribute to FRFANZ, and the other unions and associations of the fire services sector – the New Zealand Professional Firefighters Union (NZPFU), United Fire Brigades Association (UFBA), Fire and Rescue Commanders Association (FRCA), and the Public Service Association (PSA) for their efforts.

I also want to take this opportunity to recognise the Department of Conservation, and Defence as key partners in the rural fire sector, along with Forestry members for their involvement and willingness to also be part of, and contribute to, this change.

The sector’s collective influence and engagement must continue alongside work to achieve the aims of Fire and Emergency over the next three years.

When I addressed this conference a year ago in Masterton, the new legislation had just been introduced to the House.

Many individuals and organisations, including FRFANZ and the UFBA gave their feedback through the Select Committee process.

This feedback was heard and Government responded, particularly around the use of fire as a land management tool.

Accordingly, the Fire and Emergency New Zealand Act does not fundamentally change the way fires are fought or managed in rural communities.

Rather, we have sought to enhance the way this country’s firefighters are funded and supported, so they can continue the good work they do serving and protecting our communities.

The legislation is a framework by which we can do better for our firefighters and the communities they serve – ensuring there is no disparity between rural and their urban colleagues or between employees and volunteers.

In effect, Fire and Emergency New Zealand is designed to be greater than the sum of its career and volunteer, urban and rural, national headquarters and regional components.

But there is no getting past the fact a large proportion of its 14,000 people are volunteers – who represent 80% of its operational workforce.

They are the people this country relies on to provide nationwide coverage, particularly in rural areas.

So chief among the aims of the new legislation, is the need to improve support for volunteers, and to make it easier for brigades and rural fire forces to attract and retain volunteers.

It is great to hear that volunteer representatives have already been involved in the design of new volunteer support initiatives, and that volunteers will continue to be involved in the testing and development of future initiatives.

With the transfer of rural fire funding from Local Government to Fire and Emergency on 1 July, work can also start towards another of the aims this organisation was built around.

Previously, rural fire funding has varied from one community to next.

Last year the Transition team surveyed Principal Rural Fire Officers (PRFOs) and their teams to find out more about this country’s rural response assets.

The picture their responses painted, was one that will not be unfamiliar to you.

More than 35% of the country’s rural appliances and tankers are over 25 years old.

Approximately 50% of rural fire buildings have no phone, 30% have no running water, and 10% have no power.

Funding to address this underinvestment in rural fire services is included in the Government’s overall commitment of up to $191 million over the next four years to support this reform, and will be directed to urgent capital upgrades, maintenance, and training needs.

The fire levy is also being broadened to include material damage insurance, and consultation on the rate of this levy will start in early 2018.

Because on top of their vital work managing the ongoing fire risk, there is no question the work firefighters are called on to do has also broadened over the years.

In parts of the country rural firefighters respond to medical emergencies, motor vehicle accidents, and provide temporary water relief, as isolated Kaikōura farmers were relieved to discover last year – thanks to the local authority’s 4WD tankers.

Some of you may also recall it was the Hunua Volunteer Rural Fire Force who ferried 200 school children out of a flooded camp in March this year, when significant flooding struck the upper North Island.

The rescue was overseen by a career firefighter crew from Papakura – not that the school children or their parents would have drawn the distinction.

On that note, it is worth reflecting our communities are the ultimate benefactors in all this work.

The importance of retaining community involvement and local identities in our fire services came through loud and clear during the Fire Services Review in 2015.

In other words, Fire and Emergency should not, and could not be ‘Wellington-centric’.

New Zealand is simply far too diverse, geographically or otherwise, for that to work.

With the new legislation now in effect, consultation will also be held on Local Advisory Committee (LAC) boundaries.

As has been stressed before, these committees will not have any operational authority over brigades or rural fire forces.

The intent is that LACs will provide advice to the Board of Fire and Emergency NZ on their local community’s risks and needs – to ensure the organisation is flexible and responsive to those needs.

In the meantime, I am advised the two pilot working parties run with local stakeholders in Greater Auckland and Mid-South Canterbury have proceeded well, and that a third is earmarked for the Hawke’s Bay.

These are just some of the opportunities that lie in front of us. 

The establishment of a new organisation on 1 July was a significant milestone on our journey to strengthening, and future-proofing this country’s fire and emergency services.

Now with the backing of strong leadership, solid funding, and a modern legislative framework, work to deliver these aims can now begin in earnest.

It goes without saying that it will continue to be done carefully, and in consultation with the sector.

You have my continued assurance that Fire and Emergency NZ will continue to engage with you as it has during the Fire Services Review and Transition period, as it now prepares for the next phase, integration to unify urban and rural fire services.

This is vital to ensure we get it right for the people of our fire services and the communities they serve and protect.

The sailing may not always be smooth, but I think we are in a very good place from which to achieve the task in front of us.

The willingness and the good faith that all parties have brought to this process have set a very positive standard for this new organisation.

A fire and emergency organisation where all parties – employees, volunteers, rural, and urban are respected for the role they play in delivering the excellent service our communities have come to rely on.

It is essential these conversations, and the partnerships that have been forged during this process, continue from this day forward.

I am also delighted that FRFANZ has put a motion to its members at its AGM this morning to explore a potential merger with the UFBA and that this motion was passed unanimously.

In closing, I would like to acknowledge the FRFANZ Committee and past and present members of the association.

Not only for the work you have done during the review and transition period, but also for your role in representing the rural fire sector over the past 30 years.

You can be justly proud of the role you have played in ensuring it remains ready to serve our communities for many more years to come.

Thank you.