20 Dec 2016

Fire Service will now back firefighters in legal trouble

7:36 am on 20 December 2016

The Fire Service is reassuring its staff and volunteers that it will provide them with legal support if they ever face prosecution.

Close up of a fire truck

Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

It comes after the case of volunteer John Klaphake, who was in October found guilty of careless driving.

Klaphake was on his way to a house fire in Wellington last year, when the Operational Support truck he was driving collided with a car at an intersection, injuring the driver.

During court proceedings, the Fire Service refused to help him pay his legal bill, citing that he had broken the organisation's own rules about how fast he should have been going through a red light.

But now the Fire Service has changed the grounds of which that decision was made, and has offered to pay Klaphake's legal costs of about $15,000.

Its Deputy National Commander, Paul McGill, said all firefighters - whether paid, volunteers or part of Operational Support - would now be fully supported if legal proceedings were ever bought against them.

"The policy before meant that our people, if they're acting outside of operational instructions or Fire Service policy, then they wouldn't receive that legal support from the Fire Service, but we're changing that so we're not restricted to that," he said.

"When we looked at our legal policy, we realised that it was too restrictive, and in some cases it was limiting the support we really wanted to give our people. It's our intention to support our people when they find themselves in this situation, when carrying out their duties, so we wanted to change the policy so it gave more discretion to our managers to provide that support.

"It was this traffic accident that really bought starkly to our notice that our procedures were too black and white and we just want to assure them [all firefighters] that the support they expect from us will be there for them."

Mr McGill said the organisation would apply the new policy retrospectively in Mr Klaphake's case, and had provided funds to repair the car and cover counselling costs for those involved in the accident.

Mr Klaphake said it was a relief.

"The real sort of sadness or regret about it is that it [the support] wasn't there right at the start. But I'm grateful now, I'm quite happy in the fact that others in the Fire Service who end up in the same situation as what I was in, would not have to endure what I went through."

Some volunteers in Wellington had decided they would stop at red lights on the way to emergencies, and others refused to drive at all.

Tony Swain, the officer in charge of the Newlands Volunteer brigade, says that may now change in light of the new policy.

"At least it's going to give us [volunteers] some assurance now that we won't be left in the same position that John was, facing these horrendous legal costs and all for the fact that he was doing it for nothing."

"I think it's a great decision that's been made, good on the Fire Service for doing it."

Mr Klaphake's case also prompted Auckland Operational Support to take out its own insurance to cover its drivers, so they didn't have to fork out if something similar happened to them.

Its chief fire officer, Glenn Teal, said the policy change was the right move.

"A lot of volunteers were concerned about exactly the same thing that we were, and we had a lot of enquiries about what we were doing, what this insurance was about, what their risks were etc., so I'm sure that it's not just us that's happy, but volunteers in general will be very happy that the policy is going to get changed."

"I'm just pleased that the Fire Service has done the right thing. I know that the Fire Service are going into a new organisation next year called Fire and Emergency New Zealand and there's a lot of emphasis on sustaining volunteerism in that new legislation, and these sorts of things that will do that, if volunteers are absolutely confident that they're going to get this sort of support."

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