Mitch McCann: It's time we fight for our firefighters

OPINION: Over the last two days, the country has watched as Auckland's firefighters have put their lives on the line to salvage the new International Convention Centre in the CBD. At least one officer was taken to hospital due to the intensity of the blaze, which closed much of the inner-city due to its ferocity. We'll never know the mental and physical stress faced by these crews over the last few days though, and that is something that's having a huge impact, and it's something we need to talk about.

In August, our 'Because it Matters' investigation highlighted the increased stress of the job facing these men and women,and we looked closely at the battles that don't involve fires. An overwhelming part of a firefighter's job is now attending medical incidents, which are called 'purple calls'. These are the most serious callouts, and are termed 'non-breathing incidents'. These have low survival rates. In Auckland alone, rates of attendance to these jobs skyrocketed over 1000 percent since 2013. The mental impact of attending these calls is immeasurable, and as I was told, often overwhelming. 

We filmed our story with two firefighters in Hamilton, Brett Cowper and John Parker, who had recently lost their close friend Patrick Sarjeant. They were incredibly brave and spoke from the heart about how this needs to stop. It wasn't the first time this had happened to them either. They'd known other colleagues who had taken their own lives when I sat down with them. Then, earlier this week the Sunday programme revisited the story and included another devastating aspect many firefighters face, occupational cancer.

Right now, the Professional Firefighters Union is working hard to convince the government to make it easier for firefighters to access ACC for their treatment, as their claims are often rejected because they can't identify which fires caused the cancer, or which toxins led to it. Can you believe that? Would you really expect any firefighter to know 'which' fire out of the thousands they've attended gave them such a hideous disease?

It's time we stepped up for our firefighters. These are the men and women we expect to be there for us if our house goes up in flames, our loved one has a cardiac arrest, or someone we know needs to be rescued from a car accident. Fire and Emergency (FENZ) is working to provide better support to staff, bringing in dozens of clinical psychologists to deal with any mental health issues. But more needs to be done. Our investigation revealed an overall disconnect between national headquarters and those on the frontline. This isn't good enough and makes problems worse. FENZ need to use every resource they can to support staff, because one suicide as we well know, is too many.

Mitch McCann.
Mitch McCann. Photo credit: Newshub.

When it comes to occupational cancer, we lag behind a number of countries who properly recognise firefighter' exposure to toxic fumes and the danger that poses. ACC Minister Iain Lees-Galloway is tasked with sorting this out. This is legislation that needs to be a priority for him sooner rather than later.

As a public relying on this service, we too can help. Share your appreciation with crews when you seen them and let them know we have their backs, just as they've always had ours. If you want to tell policy-makers how important it is that ACC recognise these cancers are caused by the job, talk to your local MP, or better yet, email the minister direct. Change doesn't happen overnight, and it certainly doesn't happen if we just sit back. Chances are you'll need a firefighter sometime in your life, but they certainly need our support now, so let's get moving.

Mitch McCann is a Newshub reporter and presenter.