Kaitaia brigade 'under siege'

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ULTIMATUM: Kaitaia's Chief Fire Officer Colin Kitchen - any more abuse or threats and firefighters will walk away.
ULTIMATUM: Kaitaia's Chief Fire Officer Colin Kitchen - any more abuse or threats and firefighters will walk away.

Aggression at the scene of motor vehicle accidents has been a fact of life for Kaitaia's volunteer firefighters for some time, but of recent times crews have struck a new phenomenon, one that Chief Fire Officer Colin Kitchen is no longer prepared to tolerate.

The brigade was increasingly being called to medical emergencies and after the aftermath of violence, and crews were often being abused and threatened by bystanders who blamed them for a "negative outcome."

The weekend of July 23-24 was the straw that broke the camel's back, Mr Kitchen said yesterday. The brigade had responded to nine calls in 24 hours, six of them to medical emergencies, and the threats against the volunteers at one of those calls had gone beyond the pale.

That incident was in Kaitaia, where a young man died despite the crew's best efforts to revive him. Family members at the address had made it clear that they blamed the firefighters for the fact that he could not be saved, Mr Kitchen said, and had made threats along the lines that they were going to 'get' the crew members and their families.

"This sort of behaviour might be explainable in terms of people getting carried away in a stressful situation, but it is totally unacceptable," he said.

These guys are volunteers who give their time and expertise 24/7, with out any sort of recompense. They don't expect any, but they are entitled to expect that they will be treated with courtesy and appreciation, and that they won't be threatened.

"Every appliance now carries a defibrillator, and we are frequently called upon to assist St John. Often we are the first to arrive at a scene, and we all do our best to ensure a good outcome. Our crews are experienced and know what they're doing, but they're not trained to deal with abuse or threats. They shouldn't have to be.

And I am saying now, that if this behaviour continues we will walk away.

"We are an emergency service, and we are here, whenever and wherever we are needed, to help, but we can only take so much."

Volunteers were precious, he added; towns like Kaitaia, indeed any community, would struggle to function without them, a fact that some people clearly needed reminding of.

The brigade had already lost a highly-valued member this year as a result of violence. That incident, which began when a number of people barged into his home at night, and ended when the victim was assaulted by his neighbours, had driven him out of Kaitaia.

It was not related to a call to the brigade, but was indicative of a level of violence that was doing great damage to the town, and was making it more difficult to attract and retain volunteers.

"We can't afford to lose people like this. We need good people, and some of the behaviour we are seeing is driving them away," Mr Kitchen said.

Nor was he impressed by the behaviour of those who had taken to congregating around the fire station on Friday and Saturday nights, "probably pre-loading before they go to the pub."

Numbers had grown to the point where firefighters were having trouble finding somewhere to park when the alarm was raised, while broken bottles were common, more than once causing injury to brigade members.

The revellers were also delaying the dispatching of crews.

"The station doors open automatically when the alarm sounds, and close again several minutes later, after the appliances have gone," he said. "We're not prepared to leave them open with people like this hanging around, so the appliance has to wait while someone closes the doors manually.

"That might not take a lot of time, but every second counts when lives are at stake."

Mr Kitchen said he had raised his concerns with to Fire Service area management, which was very supportive and was looking at a range of solutions.

- Northland Age

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