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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

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.

Photo by Robert Rielage.
Photo by Robert Rielage.

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!

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