'We're on the brink': Burnt out firefighters say understaffing will soon cost lives

Kiwi firefighters are defying their employer, Fire and Emergency NZ, by running a high-profile campaign alleging bad management and understaffing will soon cost lives.  

It's a big call from a workforce that usually just gets on with the job. 

Sulu Devoe is a senior station officer with 44 years experience and is president of the New Zealand Professional Firefighters Union Auckland branch.

"We have fewer firefighters now. As an example \we used to have 21,17 firefighters out here and four officers at City Central Fire Station. Now we're down to ten," he told Newshub Nation. 

National figures obtained by Newshub Nation show career firefighter numbers are the same as 20 years ago. In 2002 there were 1680 career firefighters. That number did increase but then dropped and as of June this year there were 1678. 

The minimum number needed is 1730. Over the same period New Zealand's population has increased by 28 percent.

Numbers provided to the union via the Official Information Act show Auckland staff should be at 547. In May there were 522. The union claims staffing is so dire, stations like Onehunga and Parnell haven't been able to staff their trucks. Firefighters also claim some staff are working up to 100 hours a week to plug the gaps. 

Newshub Nation has seen recent Saturday rosters for 11 Auckland Central stations. On June 18th 56 people were on the daytime shift but two stations - Onehunga and Parnell - had no staff. 

Of the 48 staff members rostered on, 14 were working overtime.

Last weekend, June 25th, the Remuera and Onehunga trucks were not on the road. Of the 48 firefighters working, 24 were doing overtime - that's half of the staff.

FENZ admits that's too much but claims that when it tried to recruit more firefighters than the minimum staffing needed -  known as the establishment level -  the union wasn't happy.

"Just a year ago, when we were recruiting to maintain the establishment, that was not a popular decision," says Ron Devlin, manager for the Te Hiku region -  which includes Northland and Auckland.

The Auckland Union rejects any implication it did not want numbers increased and says  overtime was never discussed and that Devlin was not part of the discussions.

Far from the central city drama - near the beautiful beaches of Hibiscus Coast north of Auckland - there's a different  staffing issue. Where there was once farmland, there is now urban intensification.

With a population of 62,000 the area is served by two fire stations, one run by volunteers and the other by a mix of career firefighters on weekdays with volunteers on a second truck covering evenings and weekends. 

By comparison Whanganui has a population of 45,000, and its fire station is crewed 24/7. Two weeks ago a house burnt down at the end of Whangaparaoa peninsula. Neighbour Roy McFarlane called it in.

"We found ourselves sitting here after the power lines came down, waiting for the fire brigade, thinking what the heck are they and mainly what's taking them so long. Waiting, waiting, " he told Newshub Nation. 

The nearest fire station at Manly is six kilometers away. It's crewed by volunteers and it took them 27 minutes to get there. The career crew in Silverdale is usually 20 minutes away but by chance they were nearby and got there in 12. The goal is to arrive in eight minutes.

A slow response time which has nothing to do with the passion and skill of volunteers and everything to do with whether the firefighting resources in Hibiscus Coast match the needs of a growing population.

FENZ Regional boss Ron Devlin says population intensification is a small aspect of fire risk and there are no plans to review the Hibiscus coast staffing situation. 

"As places actually grow in this context, the building stock is actually quite new. Right. There's a lot of systems put into modern buildings that are actually another part of managing that risk." 

Fire and Emergency is funded through insurance levies, on cars, house and property. Hibiscus Coast raises about 6.3 million dollars in levies each year. The total budget for Silverdale and Manly Fire stations in 2021 was $744,000.

"The whole part of being a national organization is to smooth that out across the country. So you get an equitable service right across New Zealand," says Devlin.

"The risk as assessed at the moment in Hibiscus Coast, what we have got there, the resources that we have got there is adequate to manage the risk. There are two very different pictures being painted.

FENZ says the public is not at risk, response times and targets are being met both in Hibiscus Coast and in Auckland. Frontline firefighters like Steve Devine don't buy it.

"There's just no direction, there's no leadership," says Steve.  

"It's at a point where we don't want to stand here and yell this out from the rooftops, because that's not what we're about. But, you know, communities have been shortchanged. Full stop."

A former All Black, Devine loved being part of a rugby team. And that's why he wanted to join a team serving the community as a firefighter. But he is speaking out because he is worried.

"Whatever we do, we're right on the brink. And I don't think it should take a death from someone in the community for some things to change."

In an attempt to break the deadlock, a third party has been brought into mediate between FENZ and the Union. But the industrial action is not just about staff numbers - there are many other claims.

For now firefighters are still turning up to every call  - even to the cat that's fallen 6 floors from an apartment. It doesn't want to be rescued, firefighters say they deserve to be.

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