It doesn’t matter whether it’s the early hours of the morning, if they’re spending time with friends and family or if they’re hard at work in the office or on the farm, when the siren goes up its all hands on deck for the communities volunteer firefighters.According to the New Zealand Fire Service website, there are around 450 stations nationwide, and approximately 8,300 volunteer fire fighters, with an additional 3000 volunteers belonging to the Rural Fire Network, all donating their time and effort to help communities protect the things that matter most – lives, homes and businesses.
Under the umbrella of the New Zealand Fire Service, the Tasman region is home to a number of stations including Murchison, Richmond, Wakefield, Tapawera, Upper Moutere and Mapua, while the Waimea Rural Fire Authority oversees the operation of the regions rural fire forces in Appleby, Hira, Brightwater, Nelson Lakes, Ngatimoti, Tasman, Upper Takaka, Wainui and Marahau.
“I belong to a lot of committees and groups,” says chief fire officer for Wakefield, Fritz Buckendahl.
“Rate payers, school committees, swimming pool committees and all the rest, I do quite a lot, but all of those things take time to help people, whereas when the siren goes up, the good thing about it is you’re helping someone straight away in their time of need.”
“There’s good camaraderie too and a lot of good friendships get built,” says Bryan Parks who volunteers for the Richmond Volunteer Fire Brigade.
Although volunteer fire fighters get a lot of satisfaction out of helping people and keeping their community safe, their love of the job must be recognised and appreciated by the public as it goes hand in hand with a number of sacrifices.
“You’re dealing with a lot of hardships and its not very nice seeing people distressed, that’s probably the only thing that sort of gets under my skin,” says Bryan.
“It can make it a bit tough sometimes, especially when you’ve got a busy diary and the siren goes off, I run out the door and say to Jill “ring my clients” and then she has to go through and reorganise everything.”
While fighting fires is obviously all part of the job description, there’s a lot more to being a volunteer fire fighter than the name suggests.
“We go to a lot of motor vehicle accidents and a lot more of the medical call outs now,” says Fritz.
“They call us a first responding brigade because the Richmond ambulance is over eight minutes away. We don’t go to many fires now days because modern houses don’t burn.
“They call it a purple call out, [when someone’s life is threatened]. We carry an AED and we’re all trained in CPR so we can start that straight away and we have the other tools such as a monitoring kit so that when St John arrives, we are able to give them some of the stats including heart rate and breathing. We try to make the patients a lot more comfortable prior to the ambulance getting there.”
The role of the regions brigades varies depending on the needs of the community in which they operate. The New Zealand Fire service brigades are equipped with a breathing apparatus in order to enter buildings, and cutting equipment for extracting patients during motor vehicle accidents. These brigades are also called upon to deal with hazardous chemical alerts, flooding and other civil defense situations, and of course, the odd misplaced pet.
The rural forces are primarily focused on vegetation and structure fires, with the ability to perform first aid, and their role at motor vehicle accidents being the management of traffic.
When it comes to the initial attack of the fire in a rural setting, the volunteer fire forces and brigades, both urban and rural, will attend, but anything that goes beyond the initial attack requires the assistance of a coordinator and management team including people from local forest companies and council who are trained in rural fires. In severe situations, crews and administration staff are also brought in from further afield.
“The fact we haven’t had any large fires this season, the last two or three years and going back in time, is a testament to having those volunteers available,” says Principal Rural Fire Officer, Ian Reade.
“They’re the first to the scene, they contain it within half an hour and if we didn’t have them we would have some pretty devastating fires. They give their time freely to train and be available and its not just the people in the crews, its also their families who allow them to do that, and their employers that allow them to disappear or not turn up to work.”
While some volunteers run their own businesses, there are many who rely on the support of their employers in order to be 100 per cent available should the siren sound.
Hermann Seifried has employed Appleby Volunteer Fire Force’s chief fire officer, Paul Eggers for many years and says there have been a few occasions when the truck has been loaded up with wine, ready to be taken into town, only to have Paul rush off to a call out.
“It could happen today, it could happen tomorrow, we accept that. It would be madness not to accept it, he’s doing it for the community not for his benefit. One day his services might be needed here at the restaurant or the winery, you never know what’s round the corner,” says Hermann.
Volunteers’ dedication to protecting communities isn’t just limited to their own, recently the Waimea Rural Fire Authority sent two crews and a task force leader to Australia to assist with fires in Tasmania and Victoria. Provided they pass the medical and fitness tests and have the appropriate experience, any member of the fire forces can put their hand up to help.
This year was the second time Nathan Palmer, a member of the Brightwater Rural Volunteer Fire Force, volunteered to fight fires in Australia. “It’s nearly three weeks of dealing with preschoolers on your own,” says his wife, Rebecca.
“You always worry, every time he goes away I’m worried that something’s going to go wrong, but I trust him because he’s a very logical person.
“I think it’s important that volunteers are out there, it’s a good cause and that’s why I support my husband doing it, it’s his passion really, he loves it and wants to be part of it.”
While every volunteer fire fighter is likely to agree the job is no walk in the park, they also believe the satisfaction that comes from the service they provide, far out ways any of the negative aspects.
Even if it’s only the smallest curiosity in becoming part of a rural fire force or fire service brigade, take the time to contact the chief fire officer of your nearest station and find out more about what it takes to become a volunteer fire fighter.