‘Short staffed and underpaid’: Invercargill firefighters locked in industrial action

Senior Invercargill firefighter Aaron Ramsey works an average of 67 hours a week and says many of his colleagues around the country work much longer hours.

Ramsey, the station’s union secretary and station officer, says the hours are long because fire stations are short-staffed, while the employees are underpaid.

Firefighters across the country are taking industrial action over pay, conditions, staff shortages and a lack of mental health support, but Fire and Emergency New Zealand [FENZ] has disputed many of their concerns.

With bargaining between the professional firefighters union and FENZ at a stalemate, unionized workers are not completing administrative tasks including gathering statistics, non-essential paperwork and training.

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Though firefighters continue to respond to emergencies, union members have voted to escalate industrial action should negotiations not progress.

Ramsey, a professional firefighter in Invercargill for 22 years, said new firefighters were paid “just over” the minimum wage.

The pay was so bad firefighters had to work extra hours to pay the bills, meaning FENZ did not have to get the extra staff that were needed, he said.

“By keeping the wages low they don’t have to address the staffing issues because the firefighters are forced to work overtime.”

The sign on the window of the Invercargill Fire Station reveals how firefighters feel they are being treated by Fire and Emergency New Zealand.

Kavinda Herath/Stuff

The sign on the window of the Invercargill Fire Station reveals how firefighters feel they are being treated by Fire and Emergency New Zealand.

One of his colleagues at the Invercargill station worked an average 78 hours a week in 2021 due to the station being short-staffed, Ramsey said.

His colleague earned good money because of the hours worked, “but at what cost … at what point does it become unsafe?”

Ramsey stressed the staff shortage was the responsibility of national headquarters, not local management who had “constantly tried” to increase numbers.

He did not believe a Government organization should allow such long hours to be worked.

“In Auckland the guys are routinely working 80 to 100 hours a week.”

Staffing numbers at the Invercargill station had not kept pace with increased numbers of callouts, extra holidays, more stat days and more training days in the past three decades, he said.

“These guys are working longer hours so other staff can do training and take leave.”

His 67-hour working weeks included working about three weekends out of every four, meaning he missed family events and time with his wife and two children.

Stress built up among firefighters when long hours were mixed with traumatic call-outs and missed family events, he said.

“The organization tells you they have got systems in place to deal with mental wellbeing, but it’s all after the event … not before.”

Ramsey said FENZ had offered 65 per cent of the unionized firefighters just a 1.5% to 2% wage increase over two years.

FENZ deputy national commander Brendan Nally said career firefighters, communication center dispatchers and others did an incredible job.

But he was disappointed the firefighters union had rejected its offer for settlement and was taking partial strike action.

The union had made over 100 claims and was asking for a 17.5% base salary increase [over three years] for all firefighters, plus additional allowances that would result in total pay increases [excluding overtime earnings] of more than 40% for most firefighters, Nally said.

The union’s claims amount to around $300 million over three years, with Fire and Emergency’s total annual budget about $617 million, he said.

Nally said career firefighters worked an average 42 hours per week, before overtime, based on two-day shifts followed by two night shifts, and four days off.

Firefighters on average spent about 6% of their rostered time attending incidents, but he was aware some “occasionally work long hours”, citing the impact of Covid-19.

FENZ had a “fatigue management policy” and all staff had to monitor and manage the risks of fatigue, Nally said.

FENZ provided free counseling, professional psychological support, peer support, dedicated safety health and wellbeing advisors, a health monitoring program, chaplaincy, and Tikanga Māori-based services and counseling was available to the immediate family members of firefighters, he said.

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