The role of a firefighter has evolved in recent years. As well as fires, crashes, natural disasters and cats stuck up trees, these days firefighters also respond to thousands of medical events every year. The increased responsibility has resulted in some fire crews experiencing more demand than ever before. Volunteer firefighters are often part of the backbone of many rural and smaller towns, but what happens when people move away or go elsewhere for work? Reporter Kiri Gillespie investigates.
Bay of Plenty fire crews are struggling to respond to a soaring number of emergencies as fewer volunteers are available during the working day.
Volunteer brigades throughout the Bay say they are experiencing an unprecedented number of call-outs this year.
Te Puke station has already surpassed its 200th emergency this year, a number not usually seen until November. In Maketū, they've gone past 175.
Maketū fire chief Shane Gourlay said his brigade was "well ahead of our calls from last year".
Maketū firefighters were also first responders, meaning they had the ability to administer pain relief. Ambulances are still called to medial events but often the brigade arrives first.
"We get called to almost anything here," Gourlay said.
Finding the people to complete a responding crew of four has become one of the brigade's biggest challenges.
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"During the day the big issue, not just for my brigade but for everyone, is that everyone seems to work away from the village or town. Some days we struggle. Once or twice, while I've been chief, we haven't been able to get a crew out the door."
Crews from neighbouring stations such as Pukehina or Te Puke helped with backup when needed but it was not ideal, he said.
"We struggle to recruit firefighters and hold on to them. [Maketū] is just a village. We are finding it hard to recruit the younger generation.
"I'm not sure why that is. I'm sure a lot would rather do something for money rather than do some things for free. But in saying that, we ran a youth emergency services day the other day and picked up three or four young people from high school."
The Maketū brigade is a crew of 19 volunteers but Gourlay said he knew of others with crews of 30 that still struggled.
Te Puke fire chief Glenn Williams agreed smaller towns with volunteer brigades had trouble "where a number of people don't work in town".
For Te Puke, many firefighters had jobs in Tauranga or worked in the kiwifruit industry, Williams said.
Katikati senior firefighter Brendan Gibbs agreed it was hard recruiting volunteers who were both available and nearby during the working day.
"Some of our guys work in the kiwifruit industry and often they can't hear their pagers or the pagers don't work inside the packhouses, which are like giant fridges."
Like other stations, the number of callouts in Katikati was "getting up there".
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"This time last year, they were up but we have that downpour of rain and there were two weeks where we had flooding callouts but this year, I don't know what it is (causing the increase in callouts)."
Last month, Matātā's volunteer fire brigade pleaded for more recruits, saying it needed at least six firefighters so it could continue to serve the community.
Fire chief Gavin Dennis said being short-staffed was made worse by many members being shift workers or working out of town, meaning they were not always available to attend.
Got what it takes? Volunteer firefighters must:
• Live within close proximity to the local fire station
• Pass police and security vetting
• Be of reasonable fitness
• Be available for training - at least once a week in most brigades
• Be available at the drop of a hat when on duty
The commitment is rewarded with a sense of camaraderie and contribution to your community. More information is available on the Fire and Emergency New Zealand website.
In 2017-18, volunteer brigades responded to nearly 82,567 incidents including:
• 12,498 medical events
• 8,474 motor vehicle accidents
• 5,165 weather and special service incidents
• 5,033 structure fires
• 3,920 vegetation fires.
Source - Fire and Emergency New Zealand