Many paid firefighters are at a 'breaking point' due to an increasing workload and the need for better equipment and resources, a representative says.
It is why hundreds of workers who are members of the NZ Professional Firefighters Union are taking strike action.
But Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) says it already offers trauma support and a safe fleet and the union's requests would cost $300 million across three years. It had offered union members a pay increase of up to 11 per cent, which was declined.
Staff have been negotiating with FENZ for better pay and working conditions and began partial strike action on June 13.
The strike action is largely behind the scenes and does not affect frontline firefighters and emergency response. During the strike, there will be limited training and no statistics gathering or reports done for FENZ. The industrial action is also being supported by call-centre staff and volunteers.
The union wants guaranteed mental health and wellbeing programmes that meet the needs of firefighters and ongoing access to psychological professionals, as well as better wages. It says some workers are working extraordinary hours for low pay.
Rotorua-based senior station officer Des Chan is the secretary of PFU Rotorua and has been a career firefighter for 35 years.
Chan estimated that four to five more firefighters were needed at his fire station alone.
"This is not just about pay, it's also about our health and safety, particularly our mental health and wellbeing. Lots of our staff are at breaking point.
"We need more staff, better equipment and resources, and greater support.
Chan believed that "our staff are so over-stretched and some of us are burning out because of having to deal with more and more traumatic events."
Chan said firefighters were writing messages on trucks to try and bring attention to the reasons for the industrial action, and hopefully, get their employer to return to the mediation talks.
Messages included "Overworked," "#Firecrisis," "Support us to protect you," and "we are @ Breaking Point".
Chan said firefighters were attending an increasing number of traumatic events. For instance, they previously attended one suicide a week and were now going to two or three on top of crashes, fires and medical call-outs.
"This has been brewing for many years. As firefighters, we love doing what we do, which is helping our community. We often get thanks from the people we help or their whānau.
"We're asking for more support from our employer by recognising that things are truly at a crisis point. They have the power to fix it."
There were about 200 paid firefighters taking industrial action across the Bay of Plenty.
The union believed FENZ had failed to employ enough firefighters to deal with their increasing workload and the current offer "devalued and disrespected" the work union staff do.
In the union's view, ongoing staffing issues put people in danger and things have reached a "crisis point".
The union previously declared a "fire crisis", claiming FENZ was not willing to discuss anything outside of remuneration during mediation talks on June 20, stalemating their collective employment contract negotiations.
FENZ deputy national commander Brendan Nally said the organisation, as a Crown entity, was accountable to a board and a minister, and subject to the usual public sector monitoring to ensure appropriate checks and balances were in place to manage public funds.
Nally said the number of career firefighters had remained steady since 2010, while structure fires had decreased by 1.5 to two per cent a year over the past 20 years.
Medical callouts had not increased since 2017, and hours of work averaged 42 hours per week before overtime, he said.
"We take very seriously the need to be able to respond as needed to protect New Zealand communities. We are confident that we have sufficient firefighters around the country to keep communities safe.
"We have clear policies and procedures in place to ensure that our firefighters are looked after, including a Fatigue Management Policy for all personnel, and continue to monitor overtime levels."
Nally said the union had made more than 100 claims through bargaining, costing about $300m across three years – and so far he believed the union had not been willing to reduce or reconsider most of those claims.
The claims include requests for increased allowances for using specialist skills and vehicles, using a mobile phone, living in a metro area, increases to public holiday pay rates and meal allowances, new medical co-response allowances, medical insurance allowance and increased training payments.
He said the union had requested salary increases of 18 per cent over three years and FENZ had offered base salary increases of between 1.5 and 11 per cent before allowances.
"We had also committed to a further pay review for the 2022 year. We believe the offer we made was fair, realistic and in line with Government guidance."
FENZ's annual budget is $617m.
He said FENZ also had support services, tools and training as it recognised the psychological demands of responding to emergencies.
"As trauma can vary for each individual, this framework allows our people to access services based on their individual needs."
Nally said the FENZ fleet was safe and suitable and appliances were regularly serviced and replaced when needed.
Nally said the use of slogans written on Fire and Emergency property, including buildings and trucks, went beyond the scope of the NZPFU's strike notice.
"We have informed our employees of this and advised them to stop actions of this nature, as it could result in disciplinary action."
NZ Professional Firefighters Union national secretary Wattie Watson said the organisation believed the $300m estimate of what the union's claims would cost was "over-inflated and in some areas highly inaccurate".
Watson said the real issue was staffing levels at a crisis point, and what he believed was a lack of a proper mental health and wellbeing programme for firefighters.
Watson believed FENZ was being "intractable" in its refusal to discuss anything other than remuneration.