The New Zealand fire service is on the lookout for a few good women

The fire service wants more diversity in its ranks and the biggest barrier appears to be a lack of self belief among women and people from ethnic minorities, reports SAMANTHA IVES:

FAMILY SURPRISED: Fire-fighter Sani Aukusitino at Brooklyn Fire Station.

SANI Aukusitino’s father was shocked when she told him she was going to be a fire-fighter.

He said fire-fighters are not usually women. Her mother thought she was a bit old for such a job.

Her friends were “taken aback” at the news and Sani  – who has worked at Brooklyn Fire Station for the past four years – still gets a reaction when she tells people about her chosen career.

But now her family is getting used to the idea.

People are probably surprised because the average fire-fighter is white, middle-aged and male – but the New Zealand Fire Service is trying to change that.

National recruitment manager Dave Utumapu says a big part of his role is to attract diversity to the service.

The recruitment process often seems quite daunting to women, he says. “Women think they have to be really strong, but the physical test is only part of the recruitment process.”

Angela Weir (26) started out as a volunteer fire-fighter when she was 17, with encouragement from her father, who has been a volunteer for a generation.

Angela didn’t think she had what it took until she attended an open day run by the service’s recruitment team. “The biggest barrier I had was self-doubt and no self-confidence,” she says. “I went to the open day and tried the physical entry test. It showed me I could do it. It gave me a confidence boost.”

She made it through the recruitment process and has been a paid fire-fighter for two years.

Jenna Collins (25) had a similar mindset before joining. “I didn’t think I was fit enough or strong enough, but after talking it over with my fire-fighter flatmate, I realised that of course I can do it.”

She has been on the job for four months and is determined to prove herself. “I want to be treated exactly the same as anyone else. “As a rookie and as a woman, I make a conscious effort to pick up the bigger hose rather than the smaller hose, if I have a choice. I haven’t encountered any problems from my colleagues. Everyone has been supportive.”

Jenna had her first fire recently at a factory in Lower Hutt and her training was tested. “I couldn’t see anything, it was smoke logged, and we broke down a door.” She says her training kicked into gear and she was able to perform her duties well.

Sani Aukusitino (pictured right) says she would love to see more Maori and Pacific Islanders in the fire service.

“In New Zealand, children want to be fire-fighters when they grow up. It’s not something you hear from kids growing up in the Pacific Islands.

“It would be great for me to see more brown faces in the fire service and when I do, it gives me a nice feeling.”

Dave Utumapu agrees and says the service sees better ethnic representation as one of its priorities.

It is something not currently shown by the numbers of female, Maori, Pacific Island and Asian fire-fighters. New Zealand’s population is 51% female, but only 4.5% of those in the fire service are women. “Asians we can count on one hand, 9% are Maori and 4% are Pacific Island.”

Mr Utumapu advertises in Maori and Pacific magazines and goes along to community events and women’s expos in order to attract people from different ethnicities.

“Asian fire-fighters are generally better at speaking to the Asian community as there is more cultural understanding – it’s the same for Pacific Island, Maori and women,” he says. “At the moment, white middle class men are represented well. That has to change.”

Fire service media spokesperson Scott Sargentina says the service wants to better reflect the wider community. The service is working on attracting more ethnic minorities and more women.

“I’m not sure why women are not represented well in the fire service,” he says. “That is certainly not the case for NZ police. I would think confronting dangerous people is more of an obstacle to some than being fire-fighters.”

How hard is it to become a fire-fighter?

Fire-fighting is a popular career, judging by the number of people who apply each year, and the rigour of the selection process.

The service can afford to be choosy, given that at the October recruitment more than 900 people applied and were short-listed (almost everyone gets through stage one).

The process starts when someone downloads the application form from the Fire Service website.

Applicants must pass all of the following tests:

1. A cognitive test – a theoretical test of general intelligence in English, mathematics and lateral thinking. A sample test is available on the website).

2. A physical pre-entry test – a series of physically demanding tests involving aerobic, strength, endurance and job related tasks – including dragging a 90kg dummy 30 metres.

3. A practical assessment course – an important tool for identifying a candidate’s match to the key attributes of a fire fighter: problem solving, communication, people and teamwork skills.

4. An Interview during which applicants are tested on the fire service’s five competencies – drive, energy and achievement focus; people and teamwork; applied problem solving and additional skills; physical fitness; and communication.
Once you have made it through the four tests, the scores from the cognitive, practical and interview are added up and the top 24-48 (depending on the number of jobs) go through to the final stages.

Achieving candidates are then offered employment pending medical, security and reference checks.

The offer of employment is withdrawn if someone fails the screening.

Candidates must successfully complete the physical pre-entry test again before the 13-week fire fighter training commences.


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