Some Northland firefighters fear they won't be able to respond to emergencies when brigades lose a second tranche of volunteers in the coming weeks due to vaccine mandates.
The head of Fire and Emergency in Northland says the organisation has plans to make sure brigades can still respond when needed — but acknowledges the situation is driving some volunteers to despair.
Kerikeri and Ōkaihau are among the worst-hit brigades. By the end of June Kerikeri is expected to have lost 11 volunteers.
That may have flow-on effects for the rest of the Mid North because Kerikeri often backs up smaller brigades if they can't raise a full crew or they're called to a major incident.
Firefighters are covered by the Health Order that requires anyone working close to health practitioners or paramedics to be double-vaccinated and boosted for Covid-19.
Firefighters' first-dose deadline was November 29, with the second dose due by January 14. The booster deadline is six months after the second dose.
Time will be up throughout May and June for most firefighters who haven't had the booster.
A senior firefighter, who didn't want to be identified, told the Advocate there had already been incidents in recent months when larger brigades had to travel up to two hours each way to provide back-up for small brigades that were short on volunteers.
He feared soon even some of the larger brigades would be unable to respond.
"During the day, come the end of June, we may not be able to get a truck out the door. That's how serious it is."
He also worried about the strain on remaining firefighters and the effects on their jobs, families and mental health.
"Even before the mandates, we had problems recruiting people. There's a lot of demands on your time, you deal with a lot of trauma ... If you bring in more requirements you just reduce the pool of people willing to volunteer."
FENZ Northland manager Wipari Henwood said it was "a real issue", especially in Kerikeri. He was planning to meet the firefighters on Monday.
Covid fatigue played a part but some volunteers also struggled to understand why, after being double vaxxed and in many cases also contracting Covid, they still needed a booster.
"Our people follow the procedures pretty closely and we have all the PPE in the world, so there are some challenges in understanding the why."
In some cases it was leading to despair, Henwood said.
"Where there is despair it's because it's putting a lot of burden on the ones who are double vaxxed and boosted ... there's more pressure on them to man the trucks and get out there and support the community," Henwood said.
"The passion of the volunteers to support their community is still there but they feel like they have one hand tied behind their backs. They can't see an end in sight and that's driving some of the desperation."
Henwood said an end date for the mandate applying to firefighters would help.
"Then they'd muscle up, but at the moment there's no end in sight."
A relaxation of the rules last week meant unvaccinated people were allowed back into fire stations for training and social events.
It was the start of bringing normality back to brigade life and reducing the loneliness some had felt.
Contingency plans for coping with a volunteer shortage included getting bigger brigades to cover for small brigades, and bringing in "surge capacity" from outside to assist large brigades if they fell short.
Meanwhile, an unofficial survey of 10 brigades around the Mid North found 32 volunteers had left so far due to vaccine mandates.
The Northland total is not known but if the Mid North is representative of the region's 40 fire brigades, that would mean more than 120 firefighters gone.
Kerikeri's tally is seven with another four due to go by the end of June. Previously the brigade had a core of about 20 operational volunteers.
Maungaturoto, Kaiwaka and Ōkaihau have also been hard hit, while Kaitaia — one of the Far North's busiest brigades — has so far avoided losing anyone.
Those numbers are, however, disputed by FENZ national headquarters.
FENZ said no Northland volunteers had been discharged due to non-compliance with the Covid-19 Health Order, though 10 had resigned, citing the order as their reason for leaving.
FENZ also stated there had been no resignations or terminations of employment of Northland career firefighters due to vaccination requirements.
Northland MP Willow-Jean Prime said mandates for most other sectors had been lifted but firefighters were captured by the Health Order because of their close contact with vulnerable patients.
She had spoken to FENZ's Northland and Mid North area managers about whether they had any capacity concerns.
Both had told her they had "surge strategies" in place and could bring in extra support where it was needed.
Prime said the next review of Covid rules was due in a few months' time, but any surge of infections during winter would be taken into account.
The Government dropped vaccine mandates for police and Defence Force personnel after a successful legal challenge in February championed by former Northland MP Matt King.
Education mandates have also been lifted.
The Health Order still applies to firefighters because they are called to medical events if St John is unable to respond quickly. They also work with medical personnel at car crashes and other emergencies.
A volunteer exodus isn't the only trouble facing FENZ, with strike action brewing by its paid staff.