New Zealand's 12,000 volunteer firefighters are prevented by ACC legislation from making any claims for cancers linked to firefighting.
Administrator of the country's largest online community of volunteer firefighters – Volleynet - and Porirua volunteer firefighter Tony Sitorius said the inequitable legislation was impossible to justify.
"It's rank, it's so broken," he said. "The risks to volunteer firefighters are exactly the same for the most part as most career firefighters."
A detailed study by the Northern Advocate found the region's 700 volunteer firefighters in 41 brigades collectively attended more fires than their paid colleagues yet receive different health cover for cancer.
Only paid employees – such as career firefighters - are included in the ACC legislation, which puts volunteer firefighting in the same recreational category as weekend sports.
International research has shown firefighters faced a greater risk than the general public of testicular cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, brain cancer, and malignant melanoma because of their exposure to cancer-causing toxins.
Sitorius said firefighters didn't have to be continually exposed to carcinogens from a fire in order to develop cancer. He pointed to the fact that most houses constructed more than 40 years ago contain asbestos.
"If you're a firefighter at a building on fire that has asbestos in it, then you're very likely to be significantly exposed no matter what you do," he said. "It's not a linear thing, you don't need lots and lots of exposure for it to make an impact."
In Northland, ACC has managed less than four work-related cancer claims by career firefighters in approximately 13 years, ending July 2019. Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) have separately managed three work-related cancer claims by Northland career firefighters between 2018 and May this year.
Since legislation was introduced there have been 13 out of 14 successful cancer claims made by paid firefighters nationally.
However, the country's lack of presumptive legislation means they face a gruelling rigmarole to prove their cancer is work-related.
Ahipara chief fire officer Dave Ross said the legislation was "shameful", especially given how dependent Northland was on its volunteer firefighters since there were no career fire stations north of Whangārei.
"It's a complete lack of understanding about what we do. We need to get the politicians to ride along in the trucks and then tell us how our work is the same as surfing or fishing."
Ross, a volunteer firefighter on-and-off for 30 years, said it especially hurt to be excluded by current legislation when they were attending numerous blazes lit by firebugs.
"It's an extremely sad indictment of the society we're in where the people looking after the communities are the ones shouldering the brunt of illnesses the community are creating with things like arson."
January and February this year saw the Ahipara Volunteer Fire Brigade extinguish five suspicious fires in six weeks.
Fears were revived about a local arsonist in mid-May following a fire was deliberately lit in an unoccupied bach on the road to Te Kohanga.
In a 12-month period ending in February this year, Northland volunteer firefighters attended a total of 1398 structural and vegetation fires.
Kerikeri proved the busiest volunteer fire brigade in terms of fire related callouts. They responded to 41 structure fires and 65 vegetation fires. Hot on their heels was Kaitaia (36 structure fires and 63 vegetation fires), followed by Kaikohe (31 structure fires and 63 vegetation fires).
Northland's only paid brigade in Whangārei attended the most fires with 83 structure fires and 75 vegetation fires.
Minister for ACC Carmel Sepuloni said the situation regarding volunteer firefighters was not unusual when compared internationally.
"Volunteer firefighters are not eligible for compensation under Australian Workers' Compensation legislation, and while Canadian Workers' Compensation legislation includes volunteer firefighters it excludes forest or wildland firefighters."
Sepuloni said ACC doesn't generally provide cover for illness and disease so had already stepped outside of their norms by providing paid firefighters with the opportunity for coverage.
United Fire Brigades Association (UFBA) chief executive Bill Butzbach has been advocating for better equity between paid and unpaid firefighters.
"There's no such thing as a volunteer fire because a fire that occurs in an area protected by a volunteer brigade is the same as the fire a paid brigade responds to." he said. "It's unacceptable that laws and support systems differentiate between volunteer and paid firefighters".
He was concerned if the law didn't change then the number of volunteer firefighters would eventually plummet.
"When many laws such as accident compensation and health and safety were enacted, they did not take into account the 24/7 contribution of volunteers in emergency services," Butzbach said. "If they're not better protected, volunteers may say at some point, well why would I make that commitment when the system isn't going to look after me if I get ill."
FENZ deputy chief executive people Brendan Nally said there were constant efforts to find ways to protect all firefighters from carcinogen exposure.
"Nothing is more important at Fire and Emergency than keeping our people safe and well. We know that our firefighters have an increased risk of certain types of cancer and that exposure to cancer-causing toxins is the reason for this."
One example was the Carcinogen Control Project rolled out in 2012. It introduced robust processes that included dirty to clean transition areas in stations to prevent carcinogens being brought into living and eating areas.
There was also education on the impacts of carcinogens in the fire and emergency sector and reducing firefighters' exposure to carcinogens, along with widening the scope of existing regular health checks to include monitoring occupational cancer risk, hearing, lung function and cardiovascular checks.