26 Aug 2022

Firefighters walk off the job again after their first ever national strike last week

5:44 pm on 26 August 2022

Firefighters across the country walked off the job for an hour today in their second strike action for better pay, increased staffing levels, increased mental health support and safer work procedures.

Firefighters on strike outside Auckland Central Fire Station.

Firefighters on strike outside Auckland Central Fire Station today. Photo: RNZ / Leah Tebbutt

The first, last Friday, was the first national firefighters strike ever held in New Zealand.

Auckland Central senior station officer Jason Orchard said he "felt sick to the stomach" having to stand at the busy Auckland city intersection.

"It's easy for people to say 'how could you walk off station' but when you've got fatigue and burnout on the scale we have right across the country, when I see my staff working continuously for 80 to 100 hours a week - It really is taking a toll on our mental health."

It was a privilege to serve his community, but the role was tearing families apart, Orchard said.

In the 26 years since he began his firefighting career, the role had dramatically changed.

"The medical response that we go to now is a complete game changer. It's okay for the leads of our organisation to say 'look we've been on these fire trucks', but back in their day with all due respect, there was no medical response.

"We've lost firefighters due to suicide. Firefighters are walking around with things inside their heads which they simply cannot unsee and it's there for a very long time."

The support Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) was offering was only "once the horse has bolted", he said.

Auckland Central firefighters strike on 26 August 2022.

Auckland Central firefighters on strike today. Photo: Supplied / Jemimah Peacocke

Firefighters on the Terrace in Wellington were met with support from the public, with passing vehicles tooting their support and representatives from other unions and members of the public also joining in.

One firefighter - Clark - said he had striked during the 80s and it hurt to be doing it again.

Speaking from the picket line today, Professional Firefighters Union secretary Wattie Watson blamed the impasse on fire bosses.

She asked how FENZ could "sit on their hands and do absolutely nothing, knowing that every day a truck is breaking down."

She said sometimes breakdown happens when firefighters are fighting the fire.

Watson questioned whether they were "going to have to have someone perish before [FENZ did] something".

In a statement issued on Thursday, the union behind the firefighters claimed they last met with FENZ on 10 and 11 August, but that FENZ was refusing to continue mediation or meet before its application of facilitation bargaining was heard by the Employment Relations Authority in mid-September.

Firefighters strike in Wellington on 26 August 2022.

Firefighters on strike in Wellington on today. Photo: RNZ / Krystal Gibbens

National Commander Russell Wood today urged the union to withdraw its current strike plans, which he said were putting people at risk.

FENZ was alerted to seven incidents in the main urban areas during the one hour strike on Friday - all alarm activations, he said.

Wood said there were two medical calls and one minor structure fire in volunteer areas.

"It is fortunate no serious fires or other emergencies that we would normally respond to occurred during this full strike," Wood said.

"St John and Wellington Free Ambulance did not call out career crews to medical calls for the hour of the strike, as agreed, and volunteers only responded to medical calls within their area.

"Mediation has reached an impasse. Despite over a year of negotiations including mediation we are still a significant distance apart.

"We believe the fastest and most effective way to reach a practical and fair resolution is with the Employment Relations Authority facilitation process."

Firefighters on strike outside Auckland Central Fire Station.

It is the second Friday in a row firefighters have taken industrial action. Photo: RNZ / Leah Tebbutt

Orchard said the strike action was not simply about wages, it was about mental health.

Firefighters were traditionally low paid, however, the number of people wanting to become a firefighter had drastically decreased from thousands to a couple hundred, he said.

"To give you an idea on how bad things have got - it is happening nationwide from Whangārei to Invercargill - but just in Auckland for example, last Saturday Devonport Station was closed down, there was no staff.

"Parnell was closed down, Onehunga was closed down, Papakura was closed down and then there were a number of other stations within Auckland that had not the full compliment of firefighters on that appliance.

"We talk about safe systems of work and you simply cannot operate and do the job safely with limited resources and not enough staff. With all those gaps and stations closing down there are many communities out there that are being left unprotected. Unfortunately FENZ is playing Russian Roulette with communities around the country."

A boy holds a sign reading "My daddy has to work too much" at the Auckland Central firefighters strike on 26 August 2022.

A boy holds a sign reading "My daddy has to work too much" at the Auckland Central firefighters strike today. Photo: Supplied / Jemimah Peacocke

Senior fireman Josh Nicholls said firefighters would not have been able to attend Friday morning's incident, if it had happened five hours earlier.

Five people were taken to hospital after a gas explosion at a building site in Auckland's Wynyard Quarter. Four people are being treated in the burns unit in Middlemore Hospital - three are critical and one is stable.

A fifth person is in a moderate condition in Auckland Hospital.

Wood told Midday Report firefighters at the scene gave first aid to the injured and made the situation safe.

Nicholls said firefighters were the first on the scene.

"It would have been totally different for our partner agencies - they would have been delayed with going in and treating these people. Especially when we are treating with explosions of sorts, we hold the gas detection equipment to be able to render that incident safe for them to go in and do the work they need to do, which is treating life threatening injuries.

"We have been saying this time and time again, what is it going to take for them (FENZ) to realise? Or what's it going to come at the cost of, someone's life? Either one of ours or a member of the public."

Auckland Central firefighters strike on 26 August 2022.

Auckland Central firefighters strike today. Photo: Supplied / Jemimah Peacocke

Wood said in a statement on Thursday that mediation had effectively broken down.

"We've spent over a year in bargaining, including mediation with both MBIE and a private mediator, and while some progress was made the parties are still a long way apart. We believe to return to mediation would cause unnecessary delays and will not bring the parties closer together.

"We genuinely believe our position is fair and reasonable, and the union thinks their position is too."

The independent facilitator would investigate all the evidence and make recommendations as to what a fair and reasonable settlement would be, Wood said.

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