11 Jul 2015

Fire brigades want to keep status quo

8:11 am on 11 July 2015

The United Fire Brigades Association says its members overwhelmingly support maintaining the status quo for the Fire Service.

Submissions on a major Government review of its services closed yesterday.

At present, urban and rural fire services are organised and delivered separately.

The options for change include enhancing the existing system; establishing separate organisations but co-ordinating the delivery of urban and rural services; or setting up a single national organisation responsible for both rural and urban services.

Fire fighter in training.

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

The association primarily looks after volunteer fire brigades, which make up 80 per cent to 90 percent of the urban and rural services.

It says communities are best served by volunteer fire brigades, and it would like to see more support for them in legislation.

The Fire Service is facing its biggest shake-up since the 1940s.

Submissions closed yesterday on the Government's discussion document for a sector-wide review of the Fire Service, which looked at the structure as well as the funding of the organisation.

The review is intended to make the legislation which governs the service better reflect what the Fire Service actually does.

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Photo: Supplied

Chief executive of The United Fire Brigades Association George Verry said it had held a comprehensive consultation process with its 8,000 volunteers, as well as the 1,500 paid fire fighters. Of the 385 brigades in the country it received 650 individual responses, and 50 responses from brigades.

He said there was very strong support for the current community-based volunteer fire brigades to continue looking after emergencies in their own communities.

"Those people out there in the volunteer fire brigades are very keen to preserve the model they have they now, which is really in essence people in local communities looking after their own emergency services."

Fire service Wellington.

The value volunteers provide to the Fire Service is $530 million a year. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Over the past year the association commissioned an independent evaluation of the value of the volunteers to the NZ Fire Service.

That work calculated the value volunteers were providing to the Fire Service to be $530 million a year.

Mr Verry said volunteers wanted more support.

"Maybe there is an opportunity for perhaps a break on the levy on the insurance just in recognition of the fact that they're actually providing their time and a service for nothing and at the same time they're paying the same levies as everybody else."

Funding of the service

The Fire Service is paid for by a fire levy on insurance.

The review ruled out the possibility of funding the Fire Service by either general taxation or a levy, or rate, on properties.

But it has been criticised by both the Insurance Council and the lobby group Business New Zealand for not considering general taxation.

Business New Zealand said the Government was seriously deficient in its decision not to consider general taxation to fund the Fire Service.

Business New Zealand's economist, John Pask, said discarding that possibility without even discussing it made a mockery of the process.

"There's no actual justification for rejecting that before its actually even gone out for consideration. The only thing that we can think of is that this is a Ministerial decision that we need to actually cut costs so therefore we're not going to pursue it, which is hardly an economically rigourous approach to examining legislation."

But Internal Affairs Minister Peter Dunne has brushed off that criticism.

"That was a Cabinet decision and I think that it needs to be seen in that light, the Cabinet made it very clear it was not of that mind. Business New Zealand, I think, is just having a bit of an ideological rant on behalf of the insurance companies, and that's fine it will be taken into account but it won't have any particular weight."

Another option for funding the service would be to move to a mixed funding model, which could include contributions from the Government to fund non-fire activities, such as medical and police assistance.

United Future Leader, Peter Dunne.

United Future Leader, Peter Dunne. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

It would also include contributions from the motor vehicle sector, including a flat annual charge on vehicle licensing, which would reflect the work the fire service does in attending car accidents.

Mr Dunne said the debate on funding had been more muted than the debate on the organisation of the Fire Service.

"I think that people have been reasonably supportive of the current approach, possibly looking at a more mixed approach where there might be the capacity to separately fund things like motor vehicle assists through either the motor vehicle license or motor vehicle insurance premium, but generally speaking that discussion has been secondary to what the fire service should look like for the future."

Mr Dunne said he will now be going through the submissions and intends to take a paper to Cabinet later in the year.