How many times have you heard a politician say that the first role of government is to protect the people? Why, then, do so many essential elements of our national security system rely on cake stalls, raffles, charitable grants and private donations to finance their operations while others like defence, police and intelligence agencies are fully (although poorly) funded?
Examples of the former include surf lifesaving, coastguard, volunteer firefighters, ambulance services and rescue helicopters. All these are essential elements of keeping Kiwis safe. They are our first responders and they do a fantastic job. Yet they and many more organisations are continually fundraising to keep operating. It is baffling when the importance of the ‘Golden Hour,’ – which refers to a notional period of time following a traumatic injury during which there is the highest likelihood that prompt medical and surgical treatment will prevent death – is widely accepted.
Many of these organisations have deep historical links in society. However, the willingness and ability of time-poor citizens to meet the increasingly complex training and compliance requirements of first responder roles is diminishing. It is time for reconsidering how these response services are organized and funded.
Cellphones and Helicopters
Over a decade ago, I gathered together the not inconsiderable data set of when, where and how people died on the road. I was interested to see whether the money being spent by Police, Accident Compensation Corporation and NZ Transport Agency on ‘shock’ road safety ads (largely on prime time TV) was reflected in traffic accident figures. I saw then what has now been confirmed by formal studies. Very little effect. In fact, at the peak of these campaigns in 2010, NZ experienced its worst Easter weekend road toll since 1993 with 11 deaths.
What was interesting in the data set – though not causative – was reductions in road deaths (although overall accident rates remained the same) over periods when two other things happened. One was the regional roll-out of the cellular phone network. The second was the staged introduction of rescue helicopters. The ability of people to call for help immediately (instead of walking 5km to the nearest farm house) was key. That enabled a helicopter to deliver a paramedic for triage and stabilization followed by speedy delivery to an emergency room.
The effects of these changes are self-evident but there are still significant areas of highway with no cellular coverage and no moves by Government to install emergency call boxes in those areas. I don’t wish to disparage the work being done by the many rescue helicopter trusts around the country but, when we are trying on one hand to reduce harm through problem gambling, why do we rely on the proceeds of pokie machines to operate rescue helicopters?
Kiwis love heading to the beach and getting on the water. Hardly a day has gone by this summer when we haven’t had reports of a swimmer drowning or boat mishap.
Surf Life Saving NZ is an excellent organisation and one of my daughters has been part of it since ‘Little Nippers.’ SLSNZ is a charity and the national association representing 74 Surf Life Saving Clubs and over 4500 volunteer Surf Lifeguards who patrol at over 80 locations through summer as well as 40 Emergency Call Out Squads throughout the year. In the 2019/20 years, they saved 577 lives, assisted 1543 people to safety and took 101, 630 preventative actions. An absolutely brilliant outcome. In the period to June 2019, they had total income of just under $11m. Over $3m of that came from pokies. About $2.2m came from sponsorship with a smattering of other small packages and about $3m from ‘selling’ water safety, SAR and education services.
Coastguard NZ describes itself as the charity saving lives at sea. Last year, they brought 6,000 people home safely after an incident on the water. They operate 63 units including two air patrols and two communications station as well as 59 ‘wet’ units. Total revenue to June 2020 is $14.3m. Just over $3m came from routine (contestable) lotteries grants (pokies). A one off agreement to support Team NZ in the Americas Cup boosted the finances. $1m comes from selling boating education course such as Day Skipper and Boatmaster. About $2.2m comes from other donations and grants. Again, you see the pattern of a Government getting a very effective national security service very cheaply.
Fire and Ambulance
Fire and Emergency NZ has nearly 12,000 volunteers spread over 600+ stations. There are 1,830 full-time firefighters and 955 management and support personnel (2019/20 annual report). It’s simple to work out roughly how many of the over 83,000 incidents attended were carried out by volunteers. Total revenue was $626m. If volunteers were paid, the expenditure of around $700m would be considerably greater. But a far greater risk is that of employers opting to not support the significant loss of productivity they experience through having volunteers on staff. Self-employed volunteers are a particularly vulnerable resource in the current economic climate.
St John and Wellington Free are NZ’s roadside ambulance service providers. There are also air ambulance services. St John covers about 90% of the nation’s callouts. The funding provided to ambulances from Government (Ministry of Health, DHBs and ACC) covers about 74% of total costs so they are left having to charge for some callouts, fund-raise or seek donations for a quarter of their operations.
There are many other worthy organisations that could be included in the national security mantra of ‘keeping Kiwis safe.’ Imagine the state of our country if all the volunteers in these organisations quit. This government has seen fit to hire its own security guards to be stationed at Covid-19 managed isolation and quarantine facilities. Clearly, where there’s a will there’s a way. An honest risk assessment would show us to be highly vulnerable in first response national security. I’m for full funding of these services.
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