This week the NZPFU notified FENZ that its current “technical competency framework” project was perilously close to repeating the fatal mistakes of the past, as it was not focused on required skills and assessed qualifications but around developing behavioural or team skills.    

We believe that FENZ’s approach is to undermine the foundation of independently assessed rank progression and qualification requirements, instead favouring a “technical competency framework” which we believe is designed to remove standards in order to widen the pool of those eligible for positions that take command and control at significant incidents.

2011 Christchurch earthquakes

FENZ is in grave danger of repeating the identified and criticised failings of the incident management of the response to the Christchurch earthquakes.

FENZ’s predecessor, the New Zealand Fire Service (NZFS), commissioned its own “independent” Review now known as the Pilling Review.   Key points made in the review by many of the Officers interviewed claimed management had limited presence and “some of the Executive Officers did not necessarily have the experience, training or competency to undertake their operational roles effectively and for them to be able to confidently command the key sites.”

The then NZFS Deputy National Commander Paul McGill detailed to the Coroner the NZFS’ acceptance of the findings of the review by Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service CEO and Chief Fire Officer Simon Pilling.  That Review acknowledged the outstanding job at the CTV building by the Senior Station Officers, Station Officers who were forced to step up “to fill the void created at a tactical level by Executive Officers… who did not take command.”   

A Coroners Inquiry into deaths in the CCTV building in February 2011 found:

  • there was confusion on the incident ground as to the lead agency and who was in charge because NZFS failed to take any steps to establish it was the lead agency, failed to identify an incident controller and did not establish an incident control point in accordance with the CIMS,
  • That despite 13 Executive Officers in Christchurch, not one went to the CCTV building to set up a proper incident control structure to provide support to the Station Officers and Senior Station Officers working there.
  • That the NZFS had conceded these failings at the “most single serious incident across the Christchurch region”.
  • That the NZFS had committed to making the improvements necessary to ensure preparedness and appropriate incident command structures.

The Coroner had relied on the undertakings of the NZFS to make significant changes.  Coroner Matenga made 8 Recommendations, 6 of which were improvements to be undertaken by the NZFS including incident improvements to incident management  to ensure appropriately trained and capable incident controllers and the appropriate incident management models and structures.

2017 Port Hills fires

Serious systemic issues of poor incident management were also identified in the context of wildfire response.   In 2018 a FENZ commissioned “independent operational review” of the February 2017 Port Hills fires was critical of the incident management team’s lack of formal communication and coordination internally and across agencies including a lack of control of deployment onto the fire ground.  The Review also highlighted the lack of planning roles, the lack of completed incident action plan (IAP) and the inability to properly and consistently track resources on the ground. 

The Review found there was a lack of any strategic planning necessary for effective response.  Command structure and systems terminology was poorly understood on the fire ground, used in various ways and applied incorrectly.  “Understanding the roles and what is required is fundamental to successful application of incident management systems in to the future.”

These are not desirable attributes of an incident management system but are imperative to the health and safety of those on the fire ground.  Not knowing who is there, where they are or controlling the tasks they are undertaking puts those lives at risk.

Incident controllers literally have the lives of firefighters in their hands

To be able to manage an incident requires particular training and skills and a consistently applied system.   

The larger the incident, the higher the alarm or the longer the campaign the more complex the operation may or may not be, but the incident controller should apply the same system drawing on the same training, qualifications and the years of experience imbedded in the current rank promotional system.  Through a consistent independently assessed qualifications framework, the incident controller can immediately and safely allocate tasks to the firefighters knowing the training and experience they will have had at their rank.  The firefighters can trust the allocation of that task and the strategy the incident controller is implementing because they know the qualifications and experience the incident controller has achieved in order to be in command.   The rank progression through required experience and assessed qualifications is integral to the safe system to response.

The improvements to the SSO course and the current ILDC course are important parts of the incident leadership development and qualifications.   That foundation ensures we have Commanders equipped to respond to major structure and other incidents including wildfire.  

FENZ’ current Technical Competency Framework project is not even discussing technical competencies, the standards that should be set or how those standards should be assessed and monitored.  The focus is not on required skills and the assessment of those skills or qualifications, but is centred around developing behavioural or team skills of anyone working at a higher alarm or campaign incident.  We have been open in our suspicions that the drive for a “technical competency framework” has not been about meeting any gap in expertise or experience, but to remove standards in order to widen the pool of those eligible for the positions.  

The NZPFU sees no merit in its continued participation in this project with its current focus and we suspect predetermined outcome that will corrode the necessary safe systems of work necessary for safe and successful response.

If FENZ is genuine in its quest to determine a robust and sustainable technical competency framework it must first recognise and confirm the current rank progression foundation and set the boundaries for the additional or specialist competencies to be determined.  Other attributes and characteristics of leadership can be built into that programme but not at the expense of the core qualifications.  

In unity,
Wattie Watson
National Secretary

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