5 Jan 2016

Fire fighter survey: generational, safety concerns

8:17 am on 5 January 2016

Fire officers over the legal alcohol limit, cheap and unsuitable equipment and a generational divide in attitudes are among issues highlighted in a Fire Service report.

Fire fighter in training.

Fire fighters in training. Photo: SUPPLIED / NZ Fire Service

The survey looked into the safety culture at the Fire Service and was released to Radio New Zealand under the Official Information Act.

It canvassed 3248 staff and volunteers, who gave the service an overall score of 8.1 out of 10 for its safety culture.

Throughout the report, many praised the safety culture, but there are two schools of thought for those who do not think the current system is working.

On the one hand, they say safety rules are not being followed but on the other respondents say the rules are restrictive and are slowing firefighters down.

One component of the survey asked respondents to rate how much they agreed or disagreed with statements.

At the top, 95.1 percent disagreed with the statement: "My officer/manager asks personnel to bend safety rules or take shortcuts."

In second place, 93.3 percent agreed with the statement: "Personnel have access to the equipment/machinery they need to work safely."

In third place, 90.9 percent disagreed with the statement: "My officer/manager sets a poor example by ignoring safety procedures."

It was clear some saw health and safety requirements as a box-ticking exercise, or as red tape stopping them from doing their job quickly.

That also pointed to a generational divide, with one commenting older firefighters were "blasé" about safety, and were "less receptive to corrective practice".

One person said: "Not all staff treat safety as their number 1 priority. Often they think that getting the job done is more important! This is the old school way."

Another said: "The longer serving members don't take safety as seriously as the younger ones."

Meanwhile, those who thought the rules were excessive said: "[It] seems like you are restrained from doing things that you feel you are capable of doing."

Another said: "By the very nature of our job we cannot conform totally to all legislation or we will never rescue people, just collect bodies. We have a good task focused safety culture don't ruin it; give us the physical ability to do our job."

[h Recurring themes

Many respondents said chief executive and national commander Paul Baxter was leading by example, with good safety management and awareness. That praise did not extend to management.

People said there was a reluctance to report incidents, whether near misses or actual, because the process was cumbersome, reports were not always followed up and, if the issue was escalated, it could become a personal issue.

The report points to a disconnect between the volunteer and career firefighters. It recommends treating them as equals, and cutting down on the paperwork for the volunteers as many still had to juggle a fulltime job.

While it was not a recurring theme, one person said people were turning up to fires impaired by alcohol: "Some members continue to arrive to calls clearly over the legal alcohol level. [The Chief Fire Officer] has given several general verbal reminders but never taken action on any member."

The cost of safety

Safety costs featured heavily throughout the report, particularly from career firefighters.

"The amount of dollars dictates the amount of safety ie some things are too hard or too expensive to fix," one said.

"While expected to make safety a priority - budget drives it not to be! Often the ability to resolve even small safety concerns is driven by budget constraints."

There was a sense people were having to "make do" with what they had, and that equipment was not getting repaired or replaced in a timely manner.

Career fire fighters said management was not setting a good example and would leave known hazards on trucks, such as unsafe hoses.

One gave the example that managers would ignore information, or would apply the rules inconsistently, saying one manager would discard hoses because they were unsafe, while another would say "no, use the hoses".

Other examples were people having to buy their own head torches, comments that HAZMAT tents did not decontaminate properly, that the radio system was often poor or failed altogether, and that the helmets were not up to scratch.

The report's writers said safety and welfare must be prioritised above costs and operational demands.

It also recommended a review of "staffing levels required to deal with current high workloads and related fatigue across all functions and operations".

Fire Service chief executive National Commander Paul Baxter told Summer Report it had an explicit code of conduct.

"All of our leaders know that people cannot be deployed if they're under the influence of alcohol and, above all else, it's the law of the land, particularly with regard to driving," he said.

"So we're aware of these things occuring and it appears that they do. We require those leaders to act on it."