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Slow boil: Why stressed-out New Zealand firefighters say they’re at crisis point

Faced with staff shortages, equipment failures, cancer risks, and a jump in critical calls that can leave them traumatised, some firefighters are wondering if it’s time to hang up the hose. Gareth Shute reports on the dissatisfaction inside Fire and Emergency New Zealand.

The state of our nation’s fire service is probably not something most people spend much time thinking about. It’s often only if we find our own home engulfed in smoke, fire threatening to devour the walls, that the issue becomes real. We expect a fire truck to arrive at speed from the local station, full of brave souls with the physical and mental fortitude to run toward the building we just escaped from and try to save it from the flames.

The weekend of March 23rd-24th in Auckland saw a couple of dry, hot days with top temperatures of 24 degrees. It was late summer, when fire risk is highest and scrub fires can break out at any time. Yet that weekend, three fire trucks in Auckland were designated “K0” (not able to be used) because of staff shortages, and another was sent out short-crewed. When fire trucks are taken ‘off the line’, calls have to be taken by stations outside the usual response area, potentially causing delays and reducing the number of firefighters on the ground. NZ Professional Firefighters Union (NZPFU) secretary Wattie Watson says delays can have serious impacts, given that firefighters have limited time to safely rescue people trapped in a fire or to resuscitate at a medical call. Such staff shortages are a health and safety issue for the firefighters themselves, she says, but also a risk to the community at large.

“In real terms, we don’t have any more career firefighters on the ground than we’ve had since the 1990s,” Watson says. “There have been new stations, but that hasn’t meant more firefighters – staff and appliances have just been moved from one station to another.”

There are also concerns about the standard of the vehicle fleet that firefighters depend on. Last year, it was reported that many appliances (fire trucks) in Auckland had tyres that weren’t safe to be driven at speeds over 100km. In response, FENZ’s Kerry Gregory told the NZ Herald that the appliances were still “safe at the open road speed limit and firefighters were not expected to drive faster than 100kmh”.

It wasn’t the first time firefighters had expressed worries about their vehicles. In January 2017 a fleet of Fraser-MAN trucks that had been purchased for $20 million were “blacked” – deemed unfit for use by the firefighters themselves – after a string of reported faults that included doors popping open at random, pumps not going into gear or dropping out, and throttles not engaging or ceasing to work.

Fire and Emergency NZ (FENZ) Auckland region manager Ron Devlin admits that some improvements had to be made to the vehicles when they were first introduced, but says that currently all 46 of the Fraser-MAN fire appliances are in service, and operating out of some of our busiest fire stations.

He also says that staffing shortages of the sort that led to Auckland firetrucks being taken ‘off the line’ in March don’t pose any risk to public safety – in fact, there are no chronic staff shortages in the city at all.

“The public can be assured that we do have enough staff to respond to all incidents in Auckland and keep the community safe. We will not compromise on the safety of our people. On the rare occasion an appliance cannot be fully crewed, it is taken out of service to ensure our people’s safety and cover is arranged from a neighbouring station.”

FIVE OF THE MAN-FRASER APPLIANCES THAT WERE BLACKED IN 2017 (PHOTO: SUPPLIED)

The NZPFU is also concerned about a reduction in the number of heavy aerial appliance vehicles in Auckland – only two are in operation, down from a previous five. ‘Heavy aerial appliances’ are fire trucks with ladders that can have 32 metres (ten storeys) of reach to attack fires in multi-level buildings such as apartments. The NZPFU’s Wattie Watson says the shortage is especially concerning, given that one of the two heavy aerial appliances in Auckland also has to be available for incidents in Hamilton. In July, the NZPFU said that the issue is nationwide, claiming that “every metropolitan city in New Zealand is affected by a faulty aerial appliance.”

Ron Devlin says worries about the number of aerial appliances are groundless, given that the two operational appliances are based in the city centre where they are most likely to be needed, and that they are backed up by three more aerial appliances that can reach to 17 metres. They’re also more available now that they’re no longer used to respond to initial callouts from private fire alarms. Over the past five years, the heavy aerial appliance stationed at the Auckland Central station had been used only seven times on alarm-callout fires, despite responding to 2520 activations in total.

A review of the FENZ national aerial appliance strategy is underway, Devlin says, and it has begun to purchase a “small number” of new aerial appliances to replace some older vehicles, including heavy aerials.

Like teachers and nurses, many professional firefighters in the major centres are under financial pressure due to high house prices and a rising cost of living. But firefighters also face issues that are unique to their profession. Most worryingly, there is increasing evidence that some cancers – including digestive, oral, respiratory, and urinary cancer – can be caused by the chemicals absorbed by firefighters while on active duty. There’s been an enormous rise in plastic and synthetic materials used in modern buildings, including homes, and a lot of them give off toxins when incinerated. Carpets, for example, were once primarily made of wool. Nowadays, they’re more likely to contain polyester, which when burned produces benzene, a known carcinogen.

In May, by a group of firefighters gathered outside parliament to push for ACC legislation recognising these cancers as an occupational risk. Governments in Canada and Australia, along with two-thirds of US states, have already introduced legislation giving firefighters the same entitlements and medical assistance for treatment of those cancers as for any other work-related injury.

“If a firefighter was burned in a fire there would be no question it was work-related,” says Watson. “There is a wealth of accepted credible evidence that has shown repeated exposures to the toxins in a structure fire including every-day house fires result in significant increases of particular cancers in firefighters. Firefighters should not have to fight for their wages and medical assistance when diagnosed with occupational cancer.”

The NZPFU is also fighting for screening and blood tests to ensure earlier detection of these cancers. Watson also says more could be done on the ground to mitigate the risks.

“Firefighters are going into fires with temperatures of more than 500 degrees Celsius and, within reason, their uniforms have to protect them from that radiant heat. That means their uniforms have to be able to breathe, but that means that smoke can go through the uniform and they absorb these toxins through their skin.”

FENZ is aware of these issues, says Devlin, and is working with firefighters and their union to reduce potential exposure to carcinogens and better educate staff on the proper use of personal protective equipment. Improvements are being made all the time, he says, pointing to the introduction of ‘dirty to clean’ transition areas inside stations to prevent carcinogens being brought into living and eating areas.

FENZ is also widening the scope of existing regular health checks, he says. “These will include monitoring occupational cancer risk, hearing, lung function and cardiovascular checks. We are working through how we will implement this.”

While welcoming the safety improvements, Watson says the NZPFU has received pushback from FENZ on implementing on-the-ground measures such as decontamination units, and that more focused, immediate changes are required.

Fire fighters in training. Photo: SUPPLIED / NZ Fire Service

Last week, Newshub reported on the “crisis” in firefighter mental health in New Zealand. It’s part of an uptick in mental health issues in fire services worldwide, Watson says, pointing to global research showing increasing rates of PTSD, depression, anxiety, and suicide among firefighters due to their repeated exposure to trauma. But there are also New Zealand-specific causal factors she says. An agreement with the St John ambulance service five years ago means firefighters are responding to far more medical callouts than in the past.

“What has changed is the number of ‘purple calls’ where the person has stopped breathing or is in great danger. That includes suicides, incidents of Infant Sudden Death Syndrome, overdoses, heart attacks, strokes, drownings and so on. This is in addition to the medical responses firefighters have traditionally undertaken in terms of removing people from burning buildings and from car accidents, then looking after them until ambulances arrive.”

Watson says that firefighters these days respond to the majority of critical calls received via 111, unlike other first responders who face a mix of emergency situations. She believes this makes their situation unique.

“They have to be mentally prepared to walk into fire to perform rescue, contain and extinguish fire in complex and toxic fires, cut down a hanging victim, attempt to resuscitate a baby in the presence of its parents or respond to incidents involving members of their own family and friends,” she says. “They also have to respond when one of their own takes their life. They do so knowing their job is inherently dangerous, has a significant increased risk of cancer and that the repeated exposures are a recipe for mental health disorders including depression, anxiety, and post traumatic injury.”

Ron Devlin says FENZ takes mental health issues among firefighters seriously, and the fire service has worked hard to make it easier for firefighters and their families to access the support they need.

“We provide free counselling, professional psychological support, peer support, dedicated safety health and wellbeing advisors, our health monitoring programme, chaplaincy, and tikanga Māori-based services,” he says. “Counselling is also available to immediate family members for any reason that they see fit. We are really pleased that more of our people are accessing support.”

Mental health challenges are most acute for full-time professional firefighters, who attend 80% of callouts and therefore have repeated exposure to these traumatic events. A fulltime firefighter who spoke to me anonymously told me that he knew of three colleagues who had died by suicide.

“Unless a firefighter joined after the [St John] memorandum of understanding, most of the firefighters joined the job when the role was very different. It was about fighting fires and performing rescues. Now a huge part of the job is dealing with the nearly-dead and actually dead. And worse, their grieving families.”

While the professionals are most at risk, trauma also has an impact on volunteer firefighters, who also attend critical medical calls in some regions. I spoke to one former volunteer firefighter (he also wished to remain anonymous), who told me that his decision to quit after 10 years was influenced by just such a callout.

“While dealing with nasty motor vehicle accidents on isolated rural roads is itself not easy, usually you didn’t have the wider family there too, uninjured, expressing their visceral grief. One particular incident contributed to me leaving (admittedly along with other factors). We attended a purple call for someone who had been deceased for several hours. My fellow firefighters felt compelled to attempt CPR, despite perceiving that it was long past the point where this would do any good. His immediate family was there and it was terrible. Part of it was that he reminded me a lot of my own father. I realised I hadn’t signed up for this aspect of the role.”

The volunteer system is under other strains, says Watson. Volunteers tend to work further from home these days, which makes responding to callouts from their local station more difficult. She also observes that employers seem less willing to release staff for volunteer firefighting, a particularly time-intensive ‘job’ which requires both regular training and the ability to attend to a callout at a moment’s notice.

There are more challenges ahead. An umbrella organisation encompassing the old NZ Fire Service and rural firefighters, Fire and Emergency NZ today has a far more broad remit than its predecessors. This is partly a response to the report into the Port Hill fires in 2017, which identified shortfalls in the ways the fire agencies worked together: at the time, responsibilities for fighting the Christchurch fire was split between the Department of Conservation, Selwyn District Council and the New Zealand Fire Service. The Nelson fires earlier this year suggest that such wildfires will be an increasing concern under climate change (though in both cases arson is suspected).

The NZPFU is broadly supportive of the changes, though the union insists that clear rank, role, and command structures should remain. This would essentially require that firefighters at each level are only managed by those with higher qualifications and more on-the-ground experience, rather than civilians with no direct firefighting experience being appointed to the operational ranks.

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As part of the transition process, FENZ organised an external review of its work culture which found that 45% of staff had witnessed or experienced bullying in the workplace, though half that number did not report it. There have also been troubles within the NZPFU. It went through a period of “disarray” late last year when infighting saw two members of the Auckland committee expelled in a contentious manner.

Meanwhile there are more pressing issues for the people who put their lives in danger to save ours. The fulltime professional firefighter who spoke to me for this piece said the combination of factors outlined above has left him seriously questioning whether experienced firefighters are valued by their employer or by society at large. He described a recent incident when a fire chief was reluctant to call for for a HazSub (hazardous substances) truck to decontaminate the firefighters post-fire.

“I have children, so it does make me wonder whether I should really putting myself at risk week-in, week-out when basic mitigation isn’t being carried out,” he told me.

“These things do play on my mind – whether it’s the ongoing issues with the MAN trucks or the growing emotional toll of the job. It’s already a dangerous job, but if things can be done to make it less risky then why aren’t those actions being taken?”


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