Firefighters’ union blasts leadership structure of new Fire and Emergency service

Posted: December 20, 2016 by Admin in At the coalface, Class Matters, Commodification, Community organising, Economics, Firefighters, Limits of capitalism, New Zealand politics, State capitalism, Workers history, Workers' rights

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by Susanne Kemp

Back in August I wrote a piece on Redline outlining aspects of the proposed new Fire and Emergency New Zealand service, which will replace the existing Fire Service, the National Rural Fire Authority and over 4o rural fire services.  In the article I outlined key points made by the firefighters’ union in its submission to the Select Committee:

  1. The Union is pleased to see the overarching thrust of the Bill – merging of Urban and Rural; updating the mandate and addressing, at least in part, some of the anomalies with the levy. However the Union has real concerns regarding the following.
  2. Where are the guarantees regarding continued employment and continuation of the Collective Agreement and other Conditions of Employment?
  3. The Bill is very vague on Operational Command and Control – there is nothing that details who or even if there will be an Operational Head of the Service. All power is given to the (civilian) Board and they can exercise it themselves or delegate to anyone.
  4. Gratuities are only continued for existing employees
  5. P.C.A is gone to be replaced by ‘Health Standards’. The provisions for challenging a Medical Disengagement are significantly weakened.
  6. A new role of ‘Inspector’ is established and is given very substantial powers but the Bill is very vague on who, what and how they will function.

Perhaps it is no surprise that it appears  a number of the union’s main fears were more than justified.  A key problem is the the structure of FENZ’s leadership – weirdly, it appears that rather than being a merger of existing services, the Rural service is taking over the Urban areas and ‘civilians’ will be dominant in the leadership structure as opposed to people with actual fire-fighting experience.

The union has declared, “This is a foolish, ill thought-out and wrong decision by a Commission hopelessly out of their depth. . .  The Commission are totally on transmit and not receive.”

The head of the Commission making these decisions is former Labour Party politician Paul Swain.  There should thus be no surprises that what is being suggested runs counter to the interests of workers in the industry (the actual firefighters) and the wider community which needs the best fire and emergency service possible.

In a letter to Swain, the union notes, its position “is one of deep disappointment.  Our understanding of the Government’s objectives as expressed in the Bill, was to merge Urban and Rural, to do away with antiquated and silly artificial boundaries to create one Fire and Emergency Service.

“There is little doubt that decisions of the Commission do not come close to achieving this. In fact it does the opposite – perpetrating the myth that somehow Rural deserves its own stand-alone status. It is a fact that over 95% of FENZ work will be carried out by persons presently in the Fire Service. Quite what a National Manager Rural and 5 Region Managers Rural will actual do is a real mystery – probably nothing but cause grief for the NCU and RFMs (National Commander Urban and Rural Fire Managers – SK). . .

The letter also suggests, “The decision to appoint a Civilian Chief Executive, although we knew this was an agenda, is however a deplorably bad decision.  FENZ ought to be all about the Operational Response but it will be all about Corporate functions.

“Operational Commanders will be subordinate to Civilian Control – a Civilian CE will have no credibility with Operational Personnel and rightly so.  Even in the Fire Service this has been tried and has failed. Quite why there is no learning from history is another mystery.

“No capable and creditable person from overseas would be interested in the National Commander role when:
They have to report to a Civilian Chief Executive; and There is a Rural counterpart.

“As well no capable and creditable person from overseas (Uniformed) would be interested in the Chief Executive Position if they are not to be in charge of Operations. . .”

The union further stated, “. . . you need to know that as far as Firefighters are concerned, this is a very poor start to FENZ, and is quite contrary to what the Union has strongly advocated. . . On the 10 person on the SLT (Senior Leadership Team – SK), only one has an Operational background or responsibility. This is not right. . .”

It concluded, “You may have kept a handful of PRO happy and you may have satisfied the Bureaucrats who have told you to Civilianise Top Level Management, but you have not kept the 1850 members of the Union happy – and unfortunately you may well find that those are the persons you ought to have listened to.”

The firefighters have been one of the groups of workers in recent years who have stood up for themselves – and for other workers, like the Ports of Auckland workers and Auckland health workers.  They are not likely to roll over and accept what Swain and his Commission are currently intending to foist on them.

But this whole exercise points up the difference between what is handed out to us under the existing socio-economic-political order and what we actually need.  In a society based on production, distribution and exchange for human need, firefighters, in discussion with the community as a whole, would decide on what kind of fire and emergency services are needed.  The firefighters, as the people on the job, would decide the specific structure of the service and society would allocate whatever funds were necessary for the very best fire and emergency services.

For a list of our firefighter coverage see, here.  We’d draw particular attention to the interview with British firefighter union organiser Paul Embery about firefighter issues over there – read the interview here

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