Due to the significantly increased transmissibility of the current virus in Auckland community Covid-19 cases, and FENZ failing to provide any reason for continuing to expose West Harbour, Albany, Silverdale and Takapuna career and volunteer firefighters to unnecessary levels of contacts, the NZPFU has had to act in the interests of its members health and safety.
As of tomorrow West Harbour will be separated into its own yellow watch career and 6 volunteer crews bubble and Silverdale will be separated into its own yellow watch career and 6 volunteer crews bubble under Level 3. This reduces the unnecessary contact and large number of crews from the previous bubble arrangement with Albany and Takapuna. The change means a reduction of at least 30 firefighters for Albany and Takapuna firefighters which is a significant reduction in risk of exposure. It also protects FENZ’s interests as the new arrangements reduces significantly the close contacts should a firefighter test positive, reducing the number required to isolate or stations to be closed.
The affected membership have been articulating their increased anxieties and fears with unnecessary large bubbles with various unknown volunteer firefighters, particularly they do not know when they have not been provided with any operational need to continue that risk.
The NZPFU has repeatedly asked FENZ to address the unnecessary risk and put forward a series of options to limit unnecessary crew contact in compliance with FENZ’s own protection protocols and to maintaining response to protect the community. FENZ has repeatedly refused solely relying on an arrangement agreed in March 2020 under very different circumstances.
The FENZ Service Delivery Protection Protocols set out the required rules that FENZ staff and volunteers must adhere to at the various levels. All career and volunteer stations are organised into “bubbles” to limit the number of firefighters in contact with one another on station. This has limited overtime and other usual operations and practices. For Level 3 the SDPP included “Volunteers should only be on station for incident response or to maintain skills. Volunteers must not be on station on standby unless specifically dispatched by ComCen.”
Despite that National instruction, FENZ has continued to allow Silverdale and West Harbour volunteers to breach those protocols by staying on station at night. In March 2020 the NZPFU agreed to a specific protocol for Silverdale and West Harbour as we were informed that those brigades would not be able to respond at all as the volunteers were travelling from throughout Auckland to maintain Silverdale and West Harbour volunteer response. Since then we have been told by FENZ that in fact those volunteers are not responding from throughout Auckland and are within the response area under Level 3. We have not been provided with any operational reason why the volunteers must sleep on station during Level 3 restrictions.
When many of the FENZ Covid-19 planning and protocols was being developed the whole country was in Level 4 lockdown. We are under very different circumstances in February/March 2021 with community transmissions of the more highly contagious B.1.1.7 variant with research demonstrating it has been 70-80% more transmissible in some countries. The exponential risk of this variant has been emphasised by the Prime Minister and the Director-General of Health during their press conferences announcing the latest Level 3 change for Auckland. The Prime Minister wanted NZ to clearly remember that “Covid kills people” that Aucklanders were asked to “stay home to break the transmission” and make sure they had “as little of human to human contact as possible in Level 3”.
Earlier in February and again last weekend the Government placed Auckland under Level 3 restrictions and the rest of the country under Level 2 with only a few confirmed cases citing the need to demonstrate an abundance of caution. While we are hopeful those restrictions will be lifted at the Government’s proposed 7-day mark, the seriousness of the risks and possible outcomes if more cases are confirmed in the community cannot be understated. There is no guarantee that further community outbreaks will not occur again.
If Auckland remains in Level 3 then this new reduced contact system will continue. If Silverdale yellow watch cannot sustain crews without firefighters from Takapuna, then the NZPFU will source appropriate accommodation for the Silverdale yellow watch to prevent Takapuna being direct contacts to an additional 30 volunteer firefighters.
We will review these changes with each change of Level and Government restrictions. We hope that at some point FENZ willingly applies its own principles to provide the affected career and volunteer firefighters in these areas the same protections they are providing throughout the Auckland region and the rest of the country.