Summer fire risk could be elevated by lower crew levels


More than 1500 firefighters remain unvaccinated as a government deadline looms on Monday.

New Zealand fire crews' equipment at Richmond Fire Station.

New Zealand fire crews’ equipment at Richmond Fire Station. Photo: RNZ / Tracy Neal

Thirteen percent of the 11,397 volunteers covered by the Health Order are unvaccinated, and six percent of 1,930 paid staff.

Former minister Peter Dunne, who set up Fire and Emergency and is now chair of the volunteer firefighter association, said there was potential for higher community risk during the summer fire season if crewing levels fall in rural areas when the mandate comes into force.

Fire and Emergency (FENZ) said it was expecting more staff to provide their vaccination status before Monday.

“We aren’t yet in a position to confirm final figures and the potential impacts for specific communities but we are confident the vast majority of communities will not be impacted,” said FENZ national commander Kerry Gregory.

“As an emergency response organisation we always have contingency plans in place so we can respond – it’s what we do. On any given day we could get multiple incidents occurring at the same time. That’s what we plan for and why we have contingency plans in place.

“We are confident in the contingency planning that is continuing to progress based on this.”

Volunteers make up more than 80 percent of firefighters, with a mixture of paid and volunteer staff in the main centres.

Peter Dunne announces he will resign at the 2017 election after 33 years in parliament.

File photo: United Fire Brigades Association Peter Dunne Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

The United Fire Brigades Association (UFBA), which represents volunteers, said areas with low community vaccine uptake were likely to be worst hit.

“Our expectation is that the level of vaccination amongst volunteers will be about the same rate as amongst the general population, but that could still have significant impacts in isolated areas in particular,” said UFBA chair Peter Dunne. “If you’ve got an isolated brigade where a significant number of its members or even a majority have not been vaccinated, and cannot operate under the mandate, then that has pretty severe implications for fire safety and emergency safety in that region, if the brigade literally can’t perform its functions.”

As they were not employees, volunteers could not be compelled to comply, but they were being provided with the resources needed to make an informed decision on immunisation.

“There’s a lot of work being done by us to do that and also ensure that in the event that we have brigades that are not able to operate, then some form of cover can be provided to those regions.

“It will be better in some places than others, but what we’re hoping is that eventuality won’t arise because we will have sufficient cover with the vaccinated volunteers.”

He was grateful the government has allowed an extension of the mandate implementation originally set for November 15, which he said would have been “catastrophic”.

The original health order – which applies to anyone working alongside health workers, such as firefighters and police – had allowed a little over a fortnight for firefighters to comply, and for FENZ to draw up contingency plans.

Lower vaccination numbers could have severe implications in smaller rural brigades, if more than one or two firefighters remained unvaccinated. Back-up plans would depend on geography and availability, he said.

“It could impact upon availability and just who can turn out and that’s when I think you’ve got a potential – coming into the summer season in particular – of greater community risk.

“I’m not worried – I’m concerned, and obviously we’re keeping a very close eye on it and trying to get as much information out as we can to make sure that the worst scenarios don’t eventuate.”

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