Firefighters' smouldering anger erupts

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 8 August 2022

After industrial action that's been smouldering since June, firefighters have given notice of a rare national strike. 

A sign outside the Auckland city fire station. Over the sign, protest graffiti reads 'OVERWORKED - #FIRECRISIS - UNDER STAFFED - UNDER PAID - UNDER VALUED'. Next to the logo for Fire and Emergency New Zealand, there is an arrow saying 'IS A CARELESS EMPLOYER'.

The Auckland city fire station. Photo: Bonnie Harrison

Our stressed-out and over-worked firefighters have finally had enough. They’ll be walking off the job this month.

After going on a smouldering partial strike in mid-June - which saw them stop performing administrative tasks - our frustrated firefighters are ramping up the heat.

Right around the country next month, they'll be going on two separate strikes, between 11am and 12pm on Friday 19 August and again at the same time on Friday 26 August.

It's the first time there's been a national firefighters strike in this country, where they'll be refusing to respond when that fire alarm rings.

Fire and Emergency, also known as FENZ, has said in a statement that firefighters will continue to respond to emergencies during the hour-long strikes.

It says there will be fewer staff, however, and there may be delays for areas primarily served by paid career firefighters.

But the Professional Firefighters union rep Wattie Watson is scratching her head over those plans, as she told RNZ's Morning Report last week.

"The notice is actually for all of our members, but FENZ has issued a notice to say that they believe they will have a contingency available. I'm not sure what they mean by that, but they appear confident," she says.

How did we get here, and why exactly are firefighters digging their heels in?

Karla Karaitiana is a Stuff reporter covering emergency services at the Manawatū Standard.  

She's been following the tussles between FENZ and the union, which represents nearly 2000 paid staff.

"It would be very easy from an outsider looking in to think that it's a money-driven decision," she says.

Back in May, almost all union members rejected FENZ's pay offer, which would have seen the average staffer get an increase of between 1.5 and two percent, after they hadn't had a pay rise since July 2020.

The full strikes come as both parties are set to be back in mediation this week.

FENZ deputy national commander Brendan Nally said in a press release it was disappointing that the union was striking, especially after a new pay offer was put on the table which would see base salaries for all firefighters increase by between 8 percent and 19 percent over the next two years.

But Karaitiana says pay is only one of the concerns. She says mental health support, staffing numbers and working conditions for staff and volunteers are also front of mind. 

"We've got staff there that are running on empty and they're expected to perform at 110 percent. Ultimately, that's not sustainable for them."

While professional, paid firefighters are taking up the spotlight, Karaitiana says the country's 12,000 or so volunteers also bear the brunt of working at the coal face without sufficient support.

"These are people who are putting down their day jobs or leaving their families at two in the morning to attend these calls in their community, and then are kind of being left with all but a debrief at the end of it," she says.

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