14 Oct 2016

Case has some volunteer firefighters afraid to drive engines

7:56 am on 14 October 2016

Some volunteer firefighters say they'll think twice about getting into the driver's seat to get to an emergency for fear of ending up in court.

Close up of a fire truck

John Klaphake was driving a fire support truck to a house fire in Wellington when it collided with another car. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

John Klaphake was yesterday found guilty of careless use of a motor vehicle causing injury, after a crash between his fire support vehicle and a car at an intersection in July last year.

He was driving a fire support truck to a house fire in Wellington, when it collided with another car.

The driver of that car, Azeb Kebede, was knocked unconscious in the crash and suffered broken ribs and fluid on her lungs as a result.

The officer in charge of the Wellington Operational Support Unit, Brian Arons, was in the truck at the time of the crash.

He said the case could set a precedent to volunteers throughout the country.

"We are quite a big group throughout New Zealand, the Operational Support Unit and the volunteer fire fighters as well.

"It could have a flow on effect that drivers might not want to drive just in case it happens to them, given the outcome of this case."

It was already having an impact on one volunteer, called Adam.

"Well I think when going to fire call now, I don't think I'll be going to the driver's door.

"I think there will be quite a few who won't want to drive going to emergency situations, especially volunteers and especially if it's going to have an impact on their everyday lives."

Tony Swain, the officer in charge of the Newlands Volunteer Fire Brigade, said volunteers couldn't afford to lose their licence or fork out for court costs if something went wrong, so it was understandable some didn't want to risk it.

"There's a huge cost involved, and also any loss of licence, there wouldn't be anyone that I know of that could afford losing their licence, and of course you're volunteering your service for the community. At the same time no one is above the law, but it certainly does have some negatives attached to it where if you're acting in good faith you could be prosecuted," he said.

Since the prosecution came to light in May this year, some fire fighters in his brigade had been stopping at red lights on their way to emergencies, he said.

Drivers urged to take extra care

Under the law, emergency service vehicles are allowed to run a red light with their sirens and lights on, if they are on their way to an emergency and if they are driving at less than 20km/h through the intersection.

The fire service's internal policy is that speed be limited to 10km/h.

In John Klaphake's case, the Judge said he was confident the vehicle wasn't travelling at more than 20km/h.

Mr Swain said he had discussed running red lights with drivers in his brigade.

"Obviously I told them to take extra, I mean extra, extra care, and they would really sum it up as they came to any intersection as to what action they would. If they decided to stop at red lights, it was their decision and I would support that 100 percent," he said.

Mr Swain said the outcome could put other emergency service drivers off too.

But the United Fire Brigades' Association's chief executive, George Verry, wasn't convinced.

"I wouldn't be so brave as to say that's the general trend among fire fighters, but I haven't tested that."

The Fire Service's Fire Region manager Brendan Nally said he believed the case did not set a precedent for future cases.

"We have very clear policies and procedures on what is expected of our drivers. The public can be reassured we will continue to respond as we have always done, 24/7," he said.

"Our drivers receive excellent training and go to more than 70,000 incidents a year, largely without incident.

"When the Fire Service is called, the public expects us to make things better not worse, and we take the public's safety seriously."

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