Introduction to Operational Support

    Who are Operational Support ?
Within the New Zealand Fire Service there are Volunteer Firefighters who for various reasons, may not meet the physical, medical and response criteria for their local Volunteer Fire Brigade. They might live in an area served by career firefighters; they might live too far from the fire station or be unable to obtain medical clearance to wear Breathing Apparatus. Or they might simply prefer a different form of service. NZFS recognises that these volunteers still have a contribution to make, and has allowed for the establishment of Operational Support Units (OSU).

Operational Support personnel assist NZFS Fire Brigades nationwide, at any emergency that the New Zealand Fire Service has been called to. In smaller communities, the Operational Support personnel are members of the local Volunteer Fire Brigade and may attend any incident to which the Brigade is called. in larger metropolitan areas standalone Operational Support Units (OSU) are more common, and these are likely to mainly attend major incidents, or incidents to which they have been specifically requested.
The operational capabilities of OSU will vary by region and by brigade, though the common theme nationwide is quite simply 'support to the NZFS and the community'. NZFS Policy allows for Operational Support staff to carry out any tasks for which they are both trained and medically fit, and under this Policy the local Operational Support may fill a variety of roles. Examples include:
  • Traffic Control
  • Crowd Control & Scene Safety
  • Breathing Apparatus Commissioning & Entry Control
  • Logistics, including Communications and Transport tasks
  • Provision of specialist lighting capabilities
  • Provision of emergency / portable power generation capability
  • Salvage - mitigating and reducing the impact of water and smoke damage
  • First Aid / Medical Co-Response
Operational Support personnel may be involved in any or all of the above, plus more, depending on local requirements.
    Small in Profile, not in Numbers
There are over 70 Operational Support units in New Zealand, numbering nearly 400 personnel. There are also over 40 dedicated Operational Support response vehicles, though in some areas Operational Support staff can also ride with firefighters. Operational Support personnel are all over New Zealand, forming a key part of the New Zealand Fire Service's national emergency response capability. Worth noting again, all Operational Support staff are Volunteers, working under the delegated authority of the Chief Fire Officer defined in Section 28 of the Fire Service Act, 1975.
    Who joins an Operational Support unit ?
Operational Support members come from all walks of life. Students, Professionals, tradespeople, homemakers and retirees all have different strengths to bring to bear. OSU members are both young and old, male and female, and of all different nationalities and backgrounds. You are not required to have any previous experience with the Fire Service to join a unit, as all training will be provided.

Administratively, all Operational Support staff are Volunteer Firefighters and all recruits are interviewed for suitability, along with a Police background check and a medical validation that they are fit for Operational duties.
    A History of Operational Support
To trace the history of Operational Support one must first look at the establishment of Fire Police in New Zealand. The earliest known unit was established in Christchurch in 1867 (the Salvage and Fire Police Corps). The initial role of the Fire Police Corps that eventually formed in a variety of locations in the late 19th and early 20th century was primarily the protection of fire-affected neighbourhoods from looting, as well as providing general assistance and security to the Fire Brigades of the day. Legislation allowing for the swearing of Fire Police Constables was commonly adopted by many provinces around 1865 and most recently, Section 33 of the Fire Service Act 1975 (the Act) provided for this. The Act required that the Officer in charge of Police for the given district provide their approval for the establishment of a Fire Police Unit, by a Chief Fire Officer and reporting to them.

In the 1990s NZ Fire Service Executives began formally permitting the establishment of 'Operational Support' firefighters; that is, personnel attached to volunteer brigades who were 'Operational' (hands-on at at incident, instead of just back-office or administrative functions) but who had a 'Support' function. These Operational Support firefighters picked up the support roles that Fire Police covered in other areas, or indeed other non-firefighting functions as dictated by local requirements. Doing so allowed those Firefighters to concentrate on their particular area of expertise and made better use of the available manpower. From a legal standpoint, Operational support slotted straight into the delegated powers of the Chief Fire Officer (per Section 28 of the Act) without requiring signoff by Police or swearing as Constables... operationally, the roles of Fire Police and Operational Support were essentially the same, with the latter only lacking the power of arrest - a power rarely exercised and better left to the NZ Police.

In 2011, prompted by recent rewrites of Policing Legislation, NZFS national headquarters signalled the pending repeal of section 33 of the Act and the legal powers of the Fire Police Constable. In line with this, over the course of 2011 all Fire Police Units nationwide became 'Operational Support Units', with most other areas of their operations unchanged.

Today there are several discrete Operational Support Units in most of the urban centres - each with their own historical ties to the local Fire Police or Volunteer Fire Brigades of their areas - and many more directly attached to their local Volunteer Fire Brigades, operating directly with the Brigade or semi-independently, and able to respond discretely.

OSU's are generally quiet achievers, without any of the high-profile firefighting and rescue escapades that tends to hit the popular press... but it's almost certain that members of your local OSU are quietly, and resolutely, contributing to the success of your community and to the NZ Fire Service in your region. Just look for their distinctive blue helmet, in place of the firefighters yellow.

Content courtesy of Mark Foster