Barker fire initiative endorsed

9 Jun 2006

Forest owners have endorsed internal affairs minister Rick Barker's offer to hold a workshop with key stakeholders to get agreement on the reform of fire legislation.

The government plans to replace the Fire Service Act 1975 and the Forest and Rural Fires Act 1977 with one law covering fire and rescue. This will provide for the evolving rescue and civil defence roles of the Fire Service. It will also resolve inconsistencies within and between urban and rural fire systems.

Earlier this year the NZ Forest Owners Association criticised a Department of Internal Affairs summary of public submissions on possible options for reform for being "biased in favour of a highly centralised national fire control bureaucracy".

NZFOA fire committee chairman Kerry Ellem says Mr Barker has since decided not to release a second departmental discussion paper.

"Instead he has offered to have a workshop with key stakeholders at which details of a proposal will be debated until a consensus is reached. This is very positive."

Mr Ellem says forest owners endorse several of the ‘core ideas ’ Mr Barker has said he will be putting on the table.

"These include giving legal protection to all trained fire and rescue workers, supporting volunteers, and allowing organisations who meet minimum standards to ‘contract out ’ of government fire control services.

"However, we are concerned that greater integration of urban and rural fire services, as proposed by Mr Barker, may lead to increased compliance costs. Given the contribution our members will continue to be making to regional fire control, we believe very strongly that there should be no increase in the current cost of rural fire management.

"We would also be concerned if wholesale changes are proposed for the existing system. Clearly some modifications are required, but we do not see it as being broken.

"It is crucial that rural fire-fighting expertise is not lost in the process of change."

He says he takes heart from the fact that Mr Barker has recognised that specific rural fire needs, such as prevention and land management issues, could be lost within a national organisation.

"Also, the minister sees that it is important to build on existing strengths including the goodwill, commitment and dedication of volunteers."

Mr Ellem says fires in the urban and rural environments are very different, requiring different skills, different tactics and specialised training and equipment to suit the specific environment. Existing legislation reflects these differences — and any new legislation should do the same.

The NZFS has wide fire and other rescue responsibilities, while rural fire services are focussed on wildfires and have no legal mandate to attend non-fire incidents. Mr Ellem says legislation could easily be amended to remedy this anomaly.

"The number of rural wildfires is growing each year, putting many lives, homes, forests, crops and conservation areas at risk. Fortunately most of them are rapidly extinguished by highly-trained rural firefighters. It is critical that this expertise is retained and strengthened," he says.

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For more information please ring Kerry Ellem, Tel 03 318 8311 or Mobile 0274 945 009