For most of us, the word volunteer probably conjures up images of people sizzling sausages on a Saturday morning to raise a few bob for the SPCA, selling stuff at the local hospice shop or helping out at the old folks' home. All good deeds, and, as mayor John Carter regularly points out, making a huge contribution towards making the Far North as good a place to live as it can be.

Increasingly, however, we seem to be losing sight of the extraordinary roles volunteers play on a much grander scale.

It is no exaggeration to say that if it wasn't for volunteers, more of us would die on our roads, at work, at home and at the beach. That would reduce a little perhaps in the major urban centres, but in the provinces, the fact is that most of the people who come to our rescue in times of crisis are displaying altruism at its finest. And how much longer can it go on?

Last year the Kaitaia Fire Brigade responded to a record 407 incidents, ranging from cats up trees to car crashes, fires and medical emergencies, some within a few minutes' drive of the station, others an hour or more away. Every time the siren sounds, these people leave their jobs, homes and families, at significant cost to themselves and their employers. Such is the brigade's status in its community that it is often the first service people ask for, even if the circumstances don't immediately suggest that a fire engine will be a great deal of use.

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The brigade has a pretty strong roster at the moment, which is not unusual, including a significant proportion of younger people. That is encouraging, suggesting that willingness to serve voluntarily remains as strong as it has ever been, but other brigades have long been struggling, and it isn't hard to see why.

Most potential volunteers in any role would no doubt see their families as having first priority, and serving as a volunteer firefighter does not allow for that. This form of public service cannot be planned in advance or organised to fit around other obligations, and therein no doubt lies the greatest threat of it not continuing.

The same applies to St John, which is well recognised as under pressure. John Bain, who has been part of the Order in Northland for more than 40 years, and knows more than most about how it functions, has warned that without an immediate injection of cash, service levels provided by two major stations in the region will not be sustainable.

He measured that need in terms of response times. In the year to June 2019, he said, the proportion of responses within the urban target of six minutes fell from 47 per cent to 35 per cent, a sharper rate of decline than anywhere else in the country.

It has been apparent for some time that St John is struggling to provide the service expected, despite a significant level of government funding, as a charity. And it shouldn't have to. The days when small communities in particular fundraised to meet the costs of ambulances, ambulance stations, training, uniforms and equipment for volunteers should have long gone.

The day is coming when they will be over, because the service will collapse. That's what it will take to prompt a more realistic attitude regarding how much volunteers can be expected to give.

The ambo's job can be especially difficult in smaller communities, where, despite assurances from on high, ambulances are still responding to incidents with a crew of one, and, inexplicably, some of those volunteers encounter intimidation and violence when they should be welcomed as the lifesavers they are. Little wonder that the urge to volunteer in this capacity seems to be waning.

The degree to which St John should be taxpayer-funded has been under discussion for some time, although politicians are hardly falling over themselves to address the problem. Perhaps they will show a little more enthusiasm when their constituents start dying because an ambulance is not available. And the day is coming when that will happen, for want of what, in terms of government spending in myriad other areas, is chicken feed.

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The point that some people, politicians included, might be missing is that St John's volunteers save the public health system huge sums of money every year by giving their time and skills free of charge. The same goes for the rescue helicopters that serve this region.

True, that service is also partially-funded, but it is Northlanders' generosity that keeps the machines in the air, despite the Northland DHB's promise 20-odd years ago to provide a world-class patient retrieval system in exchange for putting an end to 24/7 surgical services at Kaitaia Hospital.

The people who crew the helicopters might not be volunteers, but without public donations they wouldn't get off the ground.

Then there are the surf livesavers. The Waihi Beach club revealed last week that its annual costs had increased by 27 per cent, to $142,000, since 2016. Those costs are partially met by members paying $60 a year for the privilege of serving their community. They also pay for much of the gear they use to save people's lives. And then there are those who see the club as little more than a cash cow.

The Waihi Beach club says it currently pays $8500 a year in council rates and for water, $10,000 for electricity, $9500 in regulatory and compliance costs, and $4000 for the Hauraki District Council to take its rubbish away.

According to the 2018 census, such as it was, the Hauraki District has a population of 20,022. If the club's rubbish bill was shared around that population, each resident would be paying an extra 20 cents per annum. Another 42 cents would take care of its rates and water. If its electricity bill was shared around it would cost each resident an extra 50 cents per annum, while 47 cents would cover the regulatory and compliance costs that, one suspects, benefit no one except those whose job it is to ensure that the fees that cover their salaries are paid.

The club survives on sponsorship, which it says is not easy to find, and fundraising. People who give their time and skills to save lives also give their time and skills to raise the money that enables them to do so. If that doesn't suck, what does?

What would happen if all the money volunteers save the government every year was added up — you can throw Justices of the Peace in too if you like; they save the justice system millions, and hospices, which do the public health service's job for the terminally ill — and billed to the taxpayer? In Te Hiku alone the figure would be astronomical. It'll never happen, but we really should stop taking these people for granted. We need to take a much more realistic view of what volunteers can, and should, be expected to provide.

Any council that charges $80 a week to take way a surf lifesaving club's rubbish should be ashamed of itself. So should whichever rapacious power company is charging $200 a week for electricity and the government department that charges regulatory and compliance costs.

You can be reasonably sure that the people who impose these costs don't lift a finger to do anything for anyone gratis, but they could do much, much more for those who do.