You dont just put out fires?

30 June 2022

I’m Nigel, from Fire and Emergency. I’m based in Napier and Hastings, but I work across the district, from Eketahuna right up to Wairoa.

I’m the Community Risk Manager. My role is to reduce the risk so that we don’t have anyone injured in a fire.

You don’t just put out fires?

I think that’s what the public thinks is all we do. We attend to a wide range of incidents, from chemical incidents to road traffic accidents and medical calls, but the fire service is a lot bigger than that, and the legislation requires us to be more. We cover the four “Rs” of emergency management. “Reduction,” “Readiness,” so that people are ready, “Response,” and “Recovery.”

How many volunteers do you currently have?

Locally, we’ve got 76 paid firefighters and just short of 1,000 volunteers. So, you can see our organisation is made up of volunteers. There would be no national fire service without our volunteers, so I’d like to talk about the opportunities to volunteer for the Fire Service.

You’ve said that 1,000 of our local firefighters are volunteers; where do they come from?

They come from all walks of life, which is great for us; they bring different skill sets, adding enormous value to the organisation. Many of them are managing directors of their own companies and manage people, so they come to us with skills that typically take years to train. Others come from different trades, so they bring us loads of skills that we may not have within our paid firefighters. All of our volunteers have other professions; they volunteer their time to us for free and do a fantastic job.

How can people volunteer?

You can walk into a fire station, any of the fire stations, and say, I’d like to volunteer.” It’s quite simple. But you are required to be 18 or over. You can join if you’re younger, but you need your parent’s permission. But 18 and over, male and female—I want people to realise that you don’t have to be a well-built male to be a firefighter.

What is the split between male and female volunteers?

We have more volunteer female firefighters than we have in the paid environment. Currently, around a third of our volunteers are female firefighters.

What happens once they have taken the first step towards volunteering?

Once you have taken that first step, you will need to have a medical and police checks and participate in the brigade training nights. The training requirement is relatively high, so it would probably take about three to six months to get ready to go to our National Training Centre for a week-long training. Before that, the local brigade you’ve joined will get you through all the skill sets you need and practice the basics.

What are some of the areas in which you need volunteers?

There are a few areas that we struggle in, but the main one is having people respond during the day. Because some of the smaller communities, where there’s not a lot of business and paid employment opportunities for our volunteers, they need to travel out of town to work so during the day, those communities are left short-handed.

Traditionally we’ve always asked for volunteers to respond day or night, but we’re finding that we could have people—mums or schoolteachers who work locally to respond locally during the day, helping to fill the gaps during those times.

There are many volunteer opportunities, and I want to drive that home. The reduction element of our work doesn’t require you to be operationally fit and doesn’t require you to go on a fire engine.

What type of things could they be doing?

They could be doing some home fire safety checks, which is getting a smoke alarm into everyone’s home and ensuring that the home is safe. They will check the house, the multi boxes, the heater and ensure that there is nothing near the stove. We’ll train people to do that, and if they can commit to 3 hours a week, they will make a real difference in some hard-to-reach communities.

We do loads of work in schools; I think the pester value that kids bring to fire safety is helpful. I remember when my kids used to pester me for a Christmas present they particularly wanted, they always ended up getting the gift they wanted. We’re enhancing that pester power for kids to go home and pester their parents to fit smoke alarms and to know what to do in the event of a fire. This is something we can quickly train a volunteer to do for us.

As with any large organisation, there is a lot of backroom stuff that needs to be done, and while we do train our people in this, they have got an awful lot of things to do already. That is where volunteers come in; they can pick up some of those roles, and we can train them to help us with that. I’ve seen the success of a brigade turn on the admin support that volunteers provide. They can do that from home; they don’t have to go to the station as remote access gives them access to everything they need to provide that admin support.

How much time would a volunteer need to commit?

Depending on the role, your weekly commitment could be less than you may think.

A firefighter needs to commit to probably 8 hours a week, plus the response stuff, but a volunteer who’s doing risk reduction activities, depending on what aspect we put them into—could be just 2 or 3 hours a week. This would be great for us—I can build a team of volunteers that commit that amount of time.

What impact are volunteers having on the community?

I’ve got a few examples of that. I could give you hundreds. But for now, I’ll talk about the team of people we’ve got called the “SAFE” team, “Smoke Alarms For Everyone.”

They volunteer 2 or 3 hours a week for us and get out and do home fire safety checks. What I love about this group of people is—no disrespect to them—they’re all pensioners. They’re 60, 65-plus.

They’re making a real, measurable difference in the community. I can measure the down call in the number of fires we’re attending in the areas they’ve fitted smoke alarms. I can show them the statistics; I can show them that they’ve placed a dot—a smoke alarm—on a map. When we started, those dots were scattered. But now, the whole community is just one block short of all having fire alarms.

And when we have had fires where they’ve fitted smoke alarms, the education the SAFE team has given to a family has meant the family safely getting out to their meeting point. So they’ve saved lives. That gives them a real sense of achievement.

For me, a smoke alarm in everyone’s home is a firefighter in everyone’s home. It’s a device that wakes you up in the middle of the night. You can’t smell smoke when you’re asleep, and that’s when we lose most of our people through fire. What this team of volunteers is doing is saving lives.

From your experience, could you be doing the work you’re doing without volunteers?

No. We do need fire-fighters to respond – but I’d like to add that there are loads of other roles that you can volunteer for that don’t require you to go out in the fire engine – so we’ve got the reduction work that you can do which I’ve already talked about - we’ve got some admin-type roles you can do behind the scenes that are important to us as much as the responders – all those roles are the fire service.

Click Here to see what roles are currently available to volunteer with Hawkes Bay's Fire & Emergency Service.