On 1 July 2017, more than 14,000 people from 40 different organisations, including the New Zealand Fire Service and rural fire authorities came together to establish Fire and Emergency New Zealand.
The amalgamation combines nearly all New Zealand organisations with firefighting and fire control responsibilities into one, with the legislative mandate to also perform certain non-fire-related activities including emergency medical or hazardous materials response, and urban search and rescue.
The new chief executive of Fire and Emergency New Zealand says he comes to the role with a “deep and honest respect for the work firefighters do”.
“Urban and rural firefighters are held in great respect – they are New Zealand’s most trusted profession, and I come from a similarly-trusted operational organisation. So I know what that means and I feel really proud to be going into Fire and Emergency New Zealand,” says Lieutenant General (retd.) Rhys Jones.
As Chief Executive, Rhys will work alongside Paul McGill, National Commander Urban and Kevin O’Connor, National Manager Rural to lead the new organisation’s ‘integration phase’ towards full unification over the next three years.
Understanding how different groups work together has been a consistent theme throughout his military career, from coordinating infantry alongside the armoured corps, to the three-service capabilities of the Army, Navy, and Air Force as Commander of Joint Forces for overseas operations between 2007 and 2009.
Having enlisted straight out of high school in 1978, Rhys’ 35-year career with the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) culminated in his appointment as Chief of Defence Force in January 2011. He was in Christchurch for the 6.3M earthquake one month later and oversaw the NZDF’s operational response alongside other agencies.
Rhys says he’s had his “eyes and ears open” to learn as much as he possibly can about the organisation and its people. “In that respect I consider myself very lucky to be working with Kevin and Paul, whose experience, knowledge, and respect within the fire sector are excellent.”
“Our first task is to set up the structure of the new organisation – both in terms of how urban and rural fire merge and become unified, but also the command and control aspect. The main point driving our approach to that will be that it’s fit-for-purpose.”
Paul McGill, National Commander Urban says while new legislation assumes urban and rural services are combined, they’ll continue to work side-by-side in the new organisation “while we take the next 2 – 3 years to think really hard about how we bring them together”.
“We’re a people-based organisation, so the safety, health, and wellbeing of our people will continue to be the first operating principle of any decisions made in Fire and Emergency New Zealand.”
Paul joined the New Zealand Fire Service (NZFS) in Auckland as a recruit in 1980 and served 15-years there as a frontline operational firefighter and officer, two of these years as a fulltime training instructor. He was promoted to his first senior officer role in 1995 as Otago Assistant Area Manager based in Dunedin and in 1997 was appointed Fire Region Manager for the Auckland Fire Region, a position he held for eight years.
In 2005 he moved to the NZFS National Headquarters in Wellington to take up the national Director of Operations and Training role. He was appointed Deputy National Commander in 2012, and then Chief Executive & National Commander in 2017 in the lead-up to the establishment of Fire and Emergency New Zealand.
Paul says New Zealand is not alone in its move towards broad-based emergency services, “and we pay close attention to developments in Australia and further afield”.
This includes promoting the idea of flexibility and tailoring brigades to their local risk profile. Some brigades would hardly ever go to a structure fire, he says. “In fact, they’re a lot more likely to encounter a medical response or be called on to assist with flooding or general rescue. While we’ll always ensure basic firefighting needs are met, the difference is having brigades equipped to meet broader roles.”
“The new Fire and Emergency New Zealand Act not only updates our mandate to detail the ‘main’ functions we’ve undertaken for years, but also expands our role with ‘additional’ functions, which we will take up when we’ve developed the capacity and capability to do so. These provide us with exciting opportunities to develop specialised capabilities that will expand and improve our level of service to New Zealanders and other countries.”
Kevin O’Connor, National Manager Rural started his career as a ranger with the New Zealand Forest Service in a variety of locations, before joining the Department of Conservation (DOC) when it was created in 1987.
This included six years as DOC’s Southland Conservator, followed by seven years as Deputy Director General (DDG) of its Science and Technical Group. Subsequently he took on the role of DDG Conservation Services in 2012, involving oversight and responsibility for DOC’s operational work, before being appointed National Rural Fire Officer in 2014.
With the shift in rural fire funding from local government to Fire and Emergency New Zealand, Kevin says the new organisation provides a significant opportunity to address the existing variability in rural resourcing and equipment across the country.
“As we head towards a new unified organisation, it’s worth reflecting that our combined response towards recent large vegetation fires has gone really well, and there’s been great support, but we can do it much better as well.”
He’s clear continued engagement will be key to the new organisation’s success.
“Having our people involved in workshops, testing groups and evaluations was a big part of what got us to this stage and it’s important that this continues as we head through the next phase of Fire and Emergency New Zealand’s development.