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Volunteer Voice
by Robert Rielage

A U.S. firefighter's lessons from Down Under

Visiting numerous fire stations in New Zealand and Australia gave me perspective on the U.S. fire service and appreciation for theirs

By Robert Rielage

Not long ago, my wife and I visited Australia and New Zealand. During our time Down Under we went to several stations and fire service headquarters in both countries. Just for comparison purposes, Australia has roughly the same landmass as the United States, but only 23 million people as compared with our 308 million.

Most of the population lives along Australia's eastern coastline, and the mainland is divided into six states, each with a separate fire service governed by a State Fire Authority. In the southern-most part of the country is the island of Tasmania with about 500,000 people and with the seventh state fire service.

One of the most critical fire problems throughout Australia and Tasmania is the bushfire — much like the wildland fires that occur in the western United States. These fires are fed by high winds and the extremely dry bush similar to the chaparral in the American Southwest. Just as in the United States, Australia has an increasing problem with dwellings encroaching the bush.

Tasmania employs career, retained (part time), and volunteer firefighters. There is a heavy emphasis on fire prevention, especially when it comes to bushfires, but smoke alarms and residential sprinklers are also greatly emphasized in their public education programs.  

Focus on prevention
These fire-prevention programs extend to suppression forces with nearly every piece of apparatus or staff car displaying a highly visible fire-prevention slogan and corresponding photo displayed on both the sides and the rear roll-up doors.

I visited both Tasmania's fire headquarters in Hobart that housed seven response vehicles, as well as a two-bay volunteer station in the village of Fern Tree, near the base of Mt. Wellington. In addition to firefighting, these stations also provide hazmat, rescue including vehicle extrication, as well as provide an increasing role in first-response EMS.  

New Zealand is actually a series of islands extending south to north, with a combined population of 4.5 million people of which, approximately 10,000 are firefighters: 1,500 career and 8,500 volunteer.

Even though forestry is a major industry with logging one of New Zealand's major exports, there is little-to-no problem with wildland fires due to its milder, wetter climate. With this background, there are quite a few similarities among the fire service in these two countries and ours in the United States.

Tourist attraction
While in New Zealand's southern island, we first visited Dunedin, which is the country's fifth largest city with a population of 150,000 residents. Dunedin has five stations and a total of 105 firefighters with their fire headquarters located downtown across from the city's biggest tourist attraction, the Cadbury Chocolate Factory.

This magnificent station was built in 1913 and currently houses an engine, aerial, heavy rescue, fire headquarters and the training facility for firefighters in and around the city. It was originally designed for as many as 24 on-duty firefighters, but now six firefighters staff this station, plus another 20 spread throughout the city's other stations.

For vintage fire apparatus buffs, Dunedin's main station has a fully restored 1935 Ford open-cab fire engine that seated six firefighters and was designed with enclosed equipment cabinets on both sides — an advanced feature for its day.

Farther north on the south island, we visited Akaroa, the gateway port to the city of Christchurch that sits inland approximately 25 miles away. Akaroa has only 650 year-round residents, but has become a summer beach resort for visitors from the U.S., Canada, France and New Zealand.

Volunteer reliance
Many of the ocean-view residences cost well over $1 million New Zealand dollars ($857,000) and the marinas are anchorages for many ocean going yachts and sailboats. Protecting Akaroa is a volunteer fire brigade with an engine, an engine/water tender and a co-located ambulance operated by the St. John's Ambulance Corp., a New Zealand based volunteer medical unit.

While the population soars during the summer tourist season, the dedicated volunteers have the job to protect the harbor, resorts, marinas and homes year-round.

The last department visited was in Gisborne, a city of 35,000 on the north island midway between Wellington and Auckland. Gisborne has one station with six career firefighters on duty.

The station, which is in the downtown area, is easily spotted since the top floor of the drill tower is painted bright red with the words "Smoke Alarms Save Lives." In this very modern station there are two engines, an aerial, a hazmat unit and an engine/rescue pumper. Depending on the nature of the call, the station officer decides which units will be staffed to respond.

Gisborne is about 60 miles north Napier, a city also with a career department. Between these cities are a dozen volunteer stations that assist each city when called upon in a major incident. In return, Gisborne and Napier respond with specialized apparatus such as aerials or hazmat units to assist the volunteer departments when needed. All of New Zealand's Fire Service reports to their countrywide Fire Authority.

Push for residential sprinklers
Because of the distances and terrain between stations, the New Zealand Fire Service has begun an extensive campaign to promote residential sprinkler systems. Gisborne uses the catch phrase, "Fires are fast — Home sprinklers are faster."

To help foster sprinklers, New Zealand is considering a rule that new homes constructed in un-hydrant areas must either have residential sprinklers or a separate 5,500 gallon water reservoir set aside only for fire control on each property. In most cases, homes rely on wells or captured rainwater for their daily use, so the concept of a separate fire water supply is more expensive than residential sprinklers using domestic water.

Wherever we traveled, I was welcomed just for being a firefighter. While we discussed many common issues such as staffing and budgets, the topic of department consolidations was never mentioned.

With Australia's Fire Authorities at the state level and New Zealand's Fire Authority countrywide, the benefit appears to be a closer working relationship and interdependency among all departments and stations, whether career or volunteer.  

The bottom line is that each strives to do their best to provide quality, professional protection to the residents in their response districts. This professionalism is part of the universal bond that makes us all simply firefighters. Stay safe!

About the author

Chief Robert R. Rielage, CFO, EFO, FIFireE, is the former Ohio fire marshal and has been a chief officer in several departments for more than 30 years. A graduate of the Kennedy School's Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University, Rielage holds a master's degree in public administration from Norwich University and is a past-president of the Institution of Fire Engineers — USA Branch. Chief Rielage can be reached at

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Shan Raffel Shan Raffel Wednesday, June 25, 2014 12:27:46 PM Great article Rebert.
Terry Goodwin Terry Goodwin Wednesday, June 25, 2014 5:33:52 PM A great story. Just to add, The state of Victoria is covered by two fire services. The MFESB (Metropolitan Fire & Emergency Services Board) is responsible for the City of Melbourne and Suburbs, MFB’s 2,194 employees provide services to almost three million Melbourne residents, workers and visitors, and safeguard assets and infrastructure worth billions of dollars. Our services cover the metropolitan district, an area of over 1,000 square kilometres. The MFB: delivers fire and emergency management services drives systemic change to the built environment through reforms to building design, regulations and legislation invests in research develops prevention programs that improve community safety and build resilience. MFB also provides specialist operational support across Australia and the Asia Pacific region as required. The majority of MFB services occur in the metropolitan district which reaches across 26 Local Government Areas (LGAs). There are 47 stations spread through five districts which are split into two main regions. The MFESB are full-time fire-fighters, and the CFA (Country Fire Authority) is responsible for the rest of Victoria. The following is some of the figures taken from their website, CFA is a volunteer and community based fire and emergency services organisation. We help to protect 3.3 million people and more than one million homes and properties across the state. People CFA has almost 60,000 members made up of: Volunteers - more than 58,000 Career fire-fighters - over 500 Support staff - around 1,000 What we do The 1,220 CFA fire brigades around Victoria respond to bushfire's, house fires, industrial fires, road accidents, rescues and other emergencies. We also work closely with local communities to raise awareness about fire safety and plan for bushfires. The MFESB and CFA brigades work closely together in the outer Metropolitan areas and other large incidents around the state as evident in the recent Open Cut Coal fires in Eastern Victoria.
Kym Williams Kym Williams Friday, June 27, 2014 3:34:47 AM what about the 2 territories,which are the Northern territory and the Australian capital in the Northern territory bush fires last for several weeks covering thousands of kilometres
Logan McIntosh Logan McIntosh Friday, June 27, 2014 3:41:35 AM I grew up on Gisborne Fire Station, literally living in a flat on the station's grounds. My father was a permanent Fire Officer there. That tower which is actually hose tower, was a times our play ground, the chief's son and I used to winch each other up and down inside the tower. I now live in Australia and have served myself in almost every Fire Service on the Eastern side of Australia. I had the pleasure to travel over to the US in Sep 2011 and attended the 9/11 Ten Year Firefighter Memorial, a very humbling experience. I too found that firefighters welcome you with open arms and made you feel part of the great brother/sisterhood that it is. Great story thanks for sharing!
Edward Lacko Edward Lacko Friday, June 27, 2014 3:58:42 AM Nice article. Great insight for those who are visiting Australia and New Zealand Fire Stations. Always welcome....
Darren Chapman Darren Chapman Friday, June 27, 2014 4:00:29 AM A fantastic article highlighting the true commitment of all our firefighter be them career, retained or volunteer.
Ian Montgomery Ian Montgomery Friday, June 27, 2014 4:00:35 PM St John is a mix of Volunteer and Career people ranging from First-aiders to Intencive Care Paramedics. The organisation provides ambulance and event medical services to all but a few areas of New Zealand
Ian Montgomery Ian Montgomery Friday, June 27, 2014 4:14:12 PM I am a Rural Fire Officer with the Okiwi Bay Volunteer Rural Fire Force. The New Zealand Fire service is divided into Rural and Urban, but all operate under the umbrella of the New Zealand Fire Service. This makes for a consistant approach and message for all matters fire. Plus the benifits of a unified standard for equipment etc:
Brian Blunt Brian Blunt Saturday, June 28, 2014 4:45:24 AM Tghe state of New South Wales also has two major fire services. Fire& Rescue NSW (full time and part time firefighters) covers most of the urban cities and towns, whilst the Rural Fire Service (with around 60,000 volunteers and paid admin staff) covers minor towns and non urban areas.of the state. There is a great Fire Museum in Sydney for anyone visiting.
Alan Perkins Alan Perkins Saturday, June 28, 2014 6:05:44 PM I've found on my many trips to the US that my brothers there are as welcoming as they could possibly be. Whilst we have different structures for our departments they were as keen to learn from me as I was from them. I still remember having mush fun with the guys from FDNY in the mid 90's explaining how we had 5 agencies that did rescue.
Setina SV Setina SV Sunday, June 29, 2014 1:49:14 AM Thanks for sharing your experiences. Enjoyed the read. All the best.
John Drady John Drady Sunday, June 29, 2014 10:07:41 AM Great article, thank you. It seems that with limited population and resources, the fire services has found a great balance from within with all committed to same mission of protecting life and property. NZ is stunningly beautiful and great people with lots from Irish decent. And they produce beautiful Sauvignon Blanc and stunning Pinot Noirs that are fast becoming some of the best in the world.
Anthony Adlington Anthony Adlington Sunday, June 29, 2014 1:08:05 PM we as in Australia just don't have enough we need about 200-300 more pumpers in city areas and about the same if not more for our rural services
Tom Beatty Tom Beatty Sunday, June 29, 2014 5:10:10 PM And he is a real good guy !!!!
Alberto Astorga Segura Alberto Astorga Segura Sunday, June 29, 2014 8:50:55 PM Great article, i will recommend if you had de posibility visit Chile and meet chilean firefighters, a entire volunteer organization whit great firehouses, firefighters, history, pride and tradition, with nothing but the joy of help others without any paymment for our services (all firefighters in Chile pay a cuote of money for finance her own fire companies and departments and the only retribution is the gratitude of entire population who love us). Tomorrow, june 30 is the national day of firefighting in our country, i'm glad to salute all of my coleagues in the world who share the same passion for this job and beautifull way of life! keep the fire in your lives!
Tony Langdon Tony Langdon Monday, June 30, 2014 3:29:54 PM Don't forget the third fire service in Victoria, the Department of Environment and Primary Industries, which maintains its own fire service, sort of like the US Forestry Service. DEPI has a number of full time Field Service Officers, who have firefighting as some of their duties. Every summer, they also employ a number of seasonal "Project Firefighters", who conduct fuel reduction burning every spring and autumn, as well as perform firefighting duties. DEPI are the primary agency responsible for fires on public land. In regional and rural areas like here, CFA and DEPI often work closely on bushfires, and have a large number of common radio frequencies available. For the record, I'm a CFA volunteer in a large regional city. Out here, we frequently work alongside DEPI crews on bushfires, but contact with the MFB is rare, due to our distance. The highest probability of working alongside the MFB is a major fire on the outskirts of Melbourne, which has happened at least once in the past 2 summers.
Terry Goodwin Terry Goodwin Monday, June 30, 2014 8:32:23 PM Tony Langdon Thanks Tony, I had overlooked them, though I should't have, as my Granddaughter's husband works for them out of Erica.

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