Human resources

Overworked, undervalued and under-resourced, say striking firefighters

Nick O'Brien, union member and senior firefighter, raised concerns about working conditions and equipment.

AIMAN AMERUL MUNER / Stuff

Nick O’Brien, union member and senior firefighter, raised concerns about working conditions and equipment.

One of Timaru’s striking firefighters says he and his colleagues are overworked, underappreciated and often use substandard equipment in their efforts to save lives and protect property.

Senior Firefighter Nick O’Brien arrives at five years as a full-time firefighter and is the media spokesperson for the New Zealand Professional Firefighters Union’s Timaru Group.

O’Brien said he felt compelled to speak out about concerns he says he shares with his fellow union members.

“Last month, alone, I did 110 overtime hours. This is on top of my normal month-long work,” O’Brien said.

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All union members went on a nationwide administrative strike at 12:01 a.m. Monday – demanding that Fire and Emergency NZ raise their wages, hire more firefighters, provide proper equipment, provide health insurance to firefighters as they do for the administrative staff, and providing psychological well-being assistance as well as firefighters diagnosed with occupational cancers.

Union members went on strike after reaching an impasse after more than a year of negotiations with the fire service.

Fire crews are working to put out a small fire at Timaru's Saikou restaurant late last month.

BROOKE BLACK / Stuff

Fire crews are working to put out a small fire at Timaru’s Saikou restaurant late last month.

“We constantly have the feeling among all the members that we are undervalued by Fenz.

“Nobody should have to work 80 hours…or have to worry about their equipment not working in an emergency,” he said.

O’Brien said firefighters often took extra shifts, and one of the main reasons was that there weren’t enough firefighters hired.

He said employment of firefighters in New Zealand had been in decline since the 1990s and Timaru was lucky that crew members were willing to work overtime to keep their communities safe.

He said it was thanks to them the district wasn’t left in a situation where they couldn’t cover a shift.

Fire crews work to put out a fire in a van belonging to a Timaru family in April.

Yashas Srinivasa / Stuff

Fire crews work to put out a fire in a van belonging to a Timaru family in April.

But the extra workload made it difficult for those with families, he said.

“I saw it made it difficult for the firefighters and their families, they were taking huge hours to cover extra shifts.”

St John Ambulance recently reported that firefighters co-respond to 96% of all out-of-hospital cardiac arrests.

Career firefighters have been co-responding to life-threatening medical events since 2013, O’Brien said.

O’Brien said attending medical calls definitely has an impact on staff.

“I don’t know anyone that it wouldn’t affect,” he said.

O’Brien said Timaru firefighters will continue to respond to all fires and medical incidents.

Two Timaru fire rigs in Washdyke should have been retired four years ago.

Bejon Haswell / Stuff

Two Timaru fire rigs in Washdyke should have been retired four years ago.

He said there were also concerns about the condition of the equipment they had to work with and gave the poor condition of two Washdyke trucks as an example.

One of Washdyke’s rigs is four years old, and O’Brien understands it could be one of the oldest rigs still in operation in New Zealand with 24 years on the road .

“It’s just not good enough.”

O’Brien said he understands the vital lifesaving equipment that fell on State Highway 1 from a fire truck last month came from one of the old trucks that should have retired there. four years ago.

Nick O'Brien says he and his colleagues feel undervalued by their employer.

AIMAN AMERUL MUNER / Stuff

Nick O’Brien says he and his colleagues feel undervalued by their employer.

The union has created an online resource, Fire Crisis, for members to share their experiences and educate the public about what firefighters face.

Concerns listed on the website include incidents involving faulty or old personnel and equipment.

Fire and Emergency NZ has been approached for comment.

Crews were called to a small electrical fire at Variety Lane on Stafford St, Timaru in February.

Yashas Srinivasa / Stuff

Crews were called to a small electrical fire at Variety Lane on Stafford St, Timaru in February.