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Just too many fires to fight

The frustration at Masterton’s fire station has been palpable recently.

Yesterday’s article with the painfully 2000’s headline ‘Dude, where’s my truck?’ is just the tip of the iceberg.

The crew is battling staff shortages, overtime, and crucially, tired and failing equipment.

The incident with the rescue tender was just the latest issue to deal with.

Masterton’s truck started sounding warning alarms on Monday while the crew was rushing to a serious crash near Eketahuna.

The tender, one of only two in Wairarapa, carries specialist equipment, including the jaws-of-life which are used to free people trapped in carnage.

The station officer called the incident “extremely frustrating”, fairly emotive language for firefighters who typically lean toward the understated.

He described how the crew stopped and analysed the warning, diagnosing a problem with the alternator, all the while knowing there could be car crash victims with life-threatening injuries waiting for them.

It was the third time the alternator had packed a sad this year, and more astoundingly, just after the truck had returned from a three-week service.

The call was made to continue to the job. Despite the fan belt falling off, the engine was not yet overheating. All sirens and lights were turned off as a precaution.

Upon returning to the station, the truck was immediately taken off the run, and the crew dispersed the gear between a ute and the engine bay floor.

New Zealand Professional Firefighters Union [NZPFU] secretary Wattie Watson says the lack of a central maintenance system was a key issue, but crews were accustomed to troubleshooting their trucks’ faults.

“Fire crews get to know the problems their trucks have and they get used to it. But when trucks move on, we have the same problem exported to another station.”

NZPFU Auckland local secretary and appliance representative Martin Campbell says the switch to the MAN truck has a lot to answer for.

In 2015, the former New Zealand Fire Service commissioned 47 new trucks, and almost immediately cracks in the $20 million investment began to show.

Within the first year, two trucks were blacklisted and another was yanked from service. Issues included the pump not engaging, sagging doors, poor acceleration, and a failure to properly draw water.

Fire and Emergency [FENZ] inherited the issues when the fire organisations united in 2017, and the problems continued.

In 2020, 23 of the MAN type 3 [pump] trucks were recalled after literal cracks in the steel bodywork were found.

Campbell says the issues are far from resolved, with the dispute between FENZ and MAN ongoing, meaning fewer new trucks on the horizon.

“Unfortunately that held up a lot of cascading, so the new trucks spend a bit more time at the busy stations before they are sent on to the less busy ones, and so on.

“They are trying to spread the trucks’ lives out, and that is what we are seeing in Masterton.”

FENZ said it was investigating the issue with the Masterton truck, but noted the station had multiple vehicles at its disposal. Which is a comfort, perhaps, but it fails to address the larger issue – that trucks are failing nationwide, and we are running out of backups.

Mary Argue
Mary Argue
Mary Argue is a reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age with an interest in justice and the region’s emergency services, regularly covering Masterton District Court, Fire and Emergency and Police.

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