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Where there’s smoke, there’s fire

The scrutiny of Fire and Emergency [Fenz] since its creation in 2017 via the amalgamation of New Zealand’s disparate fire services has been fairly relentless.

The organisation has come under fire for its workplace culture, including continued mishandling of complaints of sexual assault, bullying, and harassment – despite these issues being identified in the now infamous 2018 Shaw report.

During the recent 18 months of stalled negotiations, the New Zealand Professional Firefighters Union [NZPFU] did a hatchet job on the organisation by highlighting equipment failures and under-resourced stations.

Now Fenz is once again defending its response capability amid multiple reports of equipment failures – the most significant relating to the fatal Loafers Lodge fire in Newtown.

It’s been revealed that a key piece of firefighting equipment – Newtown brigade’s 32-metre-long ladder truck, one of only two large ladder trucks in the region – was out of service during the May 16 tragedy, leaving the firefighters’ sole “cherry picker-like” ladder to rescue five people from the building’s roof.

When confronted by media questions about the lack of equipment, and firefighters’ related ability to respond to the fatal event, Fenz chief executive Kerry Gregory was unequivocal.

“I want to reassure people we had the people and specialist equipment required for the Loafer’s Lodge fire,” he told reporters.

That’s a significantly different stance from NZPFU president Ian Wright, who said the second large-ladder truck would have given firefighters more tactical options.

Whether it would have saved lives is unclear, he said, but “firefighters are just tired of second-hand and unreliable equipment” – a feeling echoed by Masterton firefighters whose specialist rescue truck broke down twice in two days last week, due to a faulty alternator belt.

That failure is far from the only one. The NZPFU has documented two other recent truck breakdowns on their social media page – one of which received an interesting comment from Fenz management.

In a post showing Avondale’s truck failing while responding to a crash, Fenz’s national manager of equipment and logistics challenged people to give examples of “one piece of equipment that is not fit-for-purpose or has failed on a job”.

The comment, since deleted, sparked outrage, with brigade members from around the country inviting the manager to visit them and see the reality on the ground.

It’s the kind of comment that firefighters point to as an illustration of the continued schism between Fenz and the frontline.

Although it’s six months since a settlement was reached between Fenz and the union, firefighters claim there’s still a fundamental communication breakdown.

One firefighter the Times-Age talked to called the gap a “systemic issue”.

Fenz declined to comment on claims of a disconnection between management and firefighters.

Masterton officers say it’s disillusioning. While they accept that Fenz inherited legacy issues with its fleet in 2017, they say the lack of action in the intervening years – or even just a full acknowledgement of the current issues – is hard to swallow.

“They say the public can be assured that our level of maintenance is higher. It’s absolute rubbish. Why do belts break? Because they haven’t been maintained. It’s our bread and butter, it’s the very basis of what we do.”

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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