2 Nov 2016

The changing roles of volunteer firefighters

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 1:19 pm on 2 November 2016

These days the first responders to a car crash are far more likely to be volunteer fire-fighters than medics.

Most of New Zealand’s 11,000-plus volunteer fire-fighters are based in small towns, where they provide the only emergency services in the area.

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Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Fire-fighters may attend all kinds of accidents, including car accidents, hazardous material incidents and weather-related call-outs.

The fire service provides two levels of first aid training - every single firefighter is trained as a ‘co-responder’ and some are further trained to ambulance officer level.

Nigel Lillie, chief fire officer for the Rolleston volunteer fire brigade South of Christchurch, says fire-related call-outs are declining as a result of better fire education and an improved building code, yet a whole range of other emergencies is on the up - some of which can be traumatic for the attending volunteers.

“With serious car accidents, everyone handles them differently. I guess your first one can be nasty, but they’re trained to prepare for what they may see.”

Nevertheless the psychological effects are unpredictable, he says.

“Dealing with kids could trigger someone who’s got kids at home to start thinking about that, but there’s just such a massive range of pyschological issues that could affect people.”

This is especially acute when firefighters know the people involved in a serious accident.

“That’s our worst nightmare. And also coming across family, and it does happen from time to time. We’ve always got that in the back of our minds that in smaller communities that could possibly occur.”