18 June 2015
One of my responsibilities as Minister of Internal Affairs is the New Zealand Fire Service. This organisation of around 12,500 personnel, of whom over 80% are volunteers, is not only New Zealand’s premier emergency service, but its paid staff and urban and rural volunteers consistently rank very highly amongst our most respected occupations. Whatever the community incident – structure or vegetation fire, urban search and rescue, roadside assists or cutting people out of cars, and yes, even cats in trees – the New Zealand Fire Service is there to help.
Yet like all venerable institutions, the Fire Service needs to change to remain an effective service in the years ahead. And here is the rub: although it was nationalised in 1975, the Fire Service has remained basically unchanged since Ballantyne’s fire in 1947. (Ballantyne’s is the iconic Christchurch department store destroyed by fire with the loss of 41 lives in November 1947 – still our biggest fire tragedy.) Much of what the Fire Service does has changed since then, yet its basic structure is still rooted in those times. So we are currently undertaking the biggest review of the Fire Service since the Commission of Inquiry into Ballantyne’s fire.
In the last couple of weeks, I have been at meetings of firefighters and community stakeholders from Kaikohe in the north to Invercargill in the south and points in between, with more to come, to hear what they think the Fire Service of the future should look like. Everywhere I have been so far I have been struck by an undeniable mood for change, but also by a couple of important conditions people want to attach to change, however big or small it might be.
The first is that because of the overwhelming reliance of the Fire Service on its volunteers – urban and rural – the fundamental emphasis has to be on building a better experience for the volunteers, as well as the paid staff, in terms of training, respect and equipment, both to ensure all our firefighters today are as well equipped, prepared and resourced as they can be, and also to attract the volunteers we will need for the future.
And the second flows from the first. If we move to a genuinely unified national Fire Service, or make steps towards that, people want to be assured that the particular interests and differences of our regions are reflected in the new structure. And they are right – New Zealand is a diverse country where one size does not fit all. The needs of Otago/Southland, or Northland, or the West Coast, for example, are as different from each other as they are from Wellington or Auckland. To succeed, the new structure will have to reflect that and ensure that the interests of local communities, from where our firefighters have traditionally sprung, are recognised and valued.
The Government has deliberately (and wisely) not stated a preferred outcome at this stage. Our consultations are based on wanting to hear what communities think, so we can devise a system that meets their needs. Once the public consultation process ends in mid July, my officials and I will work to develop the new model, which I want to put before Cabinet later in the year. My aim is to get the necessary legislation through Parliament next year, and to have the new Fire Service in place by April 2017.