The organisation of rural fire firefighters in New Zealand is considerably more diverse than that of the urban firefighters of the New Zealand Fire Service (NZFS). The latter is a national body, and delivery of service is through fire brigades, some paid but mostly volunteer. The nearest equivalent in the rural fire service are voluntary rural fire forces (VRFFs), first defined in the 1979 Forest and Rural Fires Regulations, and now in Section 36 of the 2005 Regulations. VRFFs can be registered with the National Rural Fire Authority (NRFA), but are subject to the control and direction of the Rural Fire Authority of the Rural Fire District (RFD) in which they are based. Unlike the NZFS, the NRFA has no responsibility for delivery of fire service. And, again unlike the NZFS, the VRFF Controller does not have the legal responsibility that a brigade Chief Fire Officer has for delivery in his (urban) district. Instead, it is the RFA that has that legal responsibility in its (rural) district, with its Principal Rural Fire Officer (PRFO) in operational charge. Section 36 requires that a VRFF must include at least one warranted RFO so that the powers of the PRFO can be delegated to that person in the absence of the PRFO.
There are about 220 VRFFs in the country, covering some 3,500 volunteer firefighters. A few could be more accurately described as retained as they receive payment for service. This is more common when attending out-of-district fires. Most VRFFs act like volunteer fire brigades in their country areas, attending property fires, medical emergencies and motor vehicle accidents, as well as vegetation fires. Since the formation of the NZFS in 1976, there has been little rationalisation between the two services. However, unlike in some other countries, there is no strict demarcation of district boundaries, and NZFS appliances are usually turned out to incidents in RFDs. A small minority of VRFFs solely fight vegetation fires, and these are the principal focus of the rural fire legislation, and the RFAs. The Fire Service Act under which the NZFS brigades operate is primarily concerned with structures fires and other emergencies. However, this functional distinction between the two bits of governing legislation is implemented on a territorial basis, an anomaly that is overcome with good will and co-operation.
VRFFs are the primary contribution to the rural fire service from territorial local authorities. Some councils also have paid employees organised for vegetation fire response. Similarly, the Department of Conservation, Defence and forestry companies have trained staff or contractors that are expected to forego their normal duties and respond as rural firefighters should the need arise. In total, the number of rural firefighters is about the same as the urban firefighters of the NZFS.
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Rural Firefighter Accidents
Like those in Australia and Canada, firefighters are not equipped with the fire shelter tents that US firefighters carry to protect thenselves in the event of an entrapment. Instead, reliance is placed on training to avoid dangerous situations; a more benign and predictable fire environment obviously helps. In 1993, Millman1 of the NRFA surveyed historical records to compile lists of incidents that resulted in serious injuries or 'near misses'. The conclusion was that serious accidents involving rural firefighters in New Zealand have fortunately been rare. Given this rarity, and the diverse nature of rural fire fighting in the past, it is certain that these lists are incomplete. The following tables summarise the known incidents.
* denotes urban firefighters