Fire chief speaks for volunteers

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Gore Volunteer Fire Brigade chief Steve Lee is about to see a project he worked on become a reality.

Tomorrow heralds the first day of the newly formed Fire and Emergency New Zealand service.

Mr Lee said he had been fortunate to get the opportunity to be involved in the biggest change to the fire services since 1975.

It meant he got the chance to “tell the story of the good people in the volunteer brigades, in communities throughout New Zealand, who do valued work and who step up to help others in times of need.”

Mr Lee and other brigade members became involved in the process when they made submissions on the idea in the planning stages.

Then, when positions were advertised for people with volunteer firefighting backgrounds to join the project team, he applied.

He was based in Wellington while working on the project.

Mr Lee believed he could contribute through his rural and practical experience.

“I have two roles within the Fire Service, one being the chief of the Gore Volunteer Fire Brigade and the other as an employee supporting 10 local brigades, to assist them to remain operationally ready and able to respond to emergencies,” Mr Lee said.

“I have been working in Wellington within the transition project team, as an adviser and subject matter expert focusing on volunteer issues, since October 2016,” he said.

“Within this role, I have been extremely fortunate to have the support of my wife, Adrienne, and the Gore brigade membership, without whom this would not be possible.”

The group he was working with included people from rural fire forces as well as career brigade members.

“My focus is to ensure that as fire and emergency is being developed that there is a voice to give the new organisation the understanding of volunteerism and the ongoing commitment of the volunteer brigade members to protect life and property in their communities.”

New Zealand brigades were more than 85% volunteer, and it had now been recognised a more volunteer-principled approach was required at every level of the new organisation to make it easier to volunteer and to ensure the sustainability of the local brigades, he said.

“Most volunteers would not be able to undertake their duties without the support of their families and employers, and part of my role has been to communicate to Fenz the relationships between the brigades and various groups within the community.

“The public will initially see little change, as this amalgamation of services will be gradual integration over the next three to five years, with the end result being a fully unified fire/emergency service with the 40 various fire organisations as they are now unified into one.”

The new legislation also acknowledges the non-fire work firefighters undertake Behind the scenes, the brigades will experience an increased level in assistance, and when the public requires an emergency response, they could expect the same level of service, he said.

Mr Lee is passionate about the benefits and formation of the new organisation.

“[It] will bring together New Zealand’s rural, urban, paid and volunteer firefighters into a new single organisation,” Mr Lee said.

“This will encompass volunteer fire brigades that currently work as separate legal entities with service agreements with the Fire Service Commission, rural fire forces that are positioned within local organisations such as Southern Rural Fire and career staff,” he said.

The new Fire and Emergency legislation was volunteer-focused to recognise, respect and promote the contribution of volunteers, he said.

first time the law had provided this level of protection for the 11,500 volunteer firefighters in New Zealand, he said.

Members of brigades and fire forces would benefit from increased investment in field support to help with training and development, Mr Lee said.

Volunteers would also have access to advocacy and support services, as well as volunteer issues and interim dispute resolution processes, and safety, health and wellbeing initiatives, such as psychological support, a vaccination programme for all volunteers, and health monitoring of members so brigades could continue to meet the expectations of the community, he said.

“The new legislation also acknowledges the non-fire work firefighters undertake, such as medical response, civil emergency, motor vehicle and workplace accidents, and hazardous chemical emergencies.

“These varied responses that brigades have evolved towards to meet the needs of the community are now recognised as the emergency duties of the modern fire and emergency organisation.”