Story: Fires and fire services

Page 4. Towards a national fire service

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Major fires in the 1940s led to growing support for a nationally organised fire service.

Forest and Rural Fires Act 1947

A massive scrub and forest fire in the hot summer of 1946/47 threatened the towns of Taupō and Ātiamuri, and at its height blocked the Taupō–Rotorua road. This prompted the Forest and Rural Fires Act 1947, which laid the basis for a modern rural firefighting system.

Fire Services Act 1949

The commission of inquiry into the Ballantynes department-store fire suggested that urban fire brigade administration and training was inadequate, and proposed the creation of a national fire service. This was rejected by those who feared loss of local control and increased costs. Instead the Fire Services Act 1949 set up the Fire Service Council. This had the job of coordinating local body and volunteer fire services, directing training, and distributing equipment.

From the ashes


While no one died, the loss of government archives in a 1952 fire was a tragedy for New Zealand historians. Records of the Public Works, Lands and Survey, Marine, Labour and Employment departments were destroyed or damaged when the Hope Gibbons building in central Wellington went up in flames. Anger at this loss led to the establishment of the National Archives in 1957.


1950s and 1960s

The 1950s and 1960s saw some improvements in fire services. Many New Zealanders had been trained in firefighting during their wartime service, and more volunteer brigades were founded in small towns. They were given army surplus vehicles and equipment. City brigades upgraded their buildings and equipment, investing in two-way radios and replacing volunteers with paid staff.

In 1958 the first national training school was set up, and the emergency 111 telephone number was introduced. However, there was little cooperation between services around the country. They were not standardised, and their funding depended on factors such as the population and wealth of the district.

Sprott House fire

On the morning of 26 July 1969, fire broke out at Sprott House, a home for the elderly in Karori, Wellington. Although the matron and the cook managed to save 13 of the residents, seven women died. At that stage, rest homes were not required to have sprinklers or an automatic alarm. The Fire Safety Evacuation of Buildings Regulations 1970 made sprinklers, automatic alarms and evacuation schemes compulsory for institutions housing more than 20 people. More fatal fires soon showed that these provisions needed to be extended to smaller rest homes.

Parnell fumes emergency

Residents of the Auckland suburb of Parnell woke on 27 February 1973 with stinging eyes and sore throats, and emergency services were soon alerted. The source of the problem was a number of leaking steel drums containing Merphon organophosphate cotton defoliant, which had been dumped on a section in Parnell after being offloaded from a freighter bound from Mexico to Australia. Over the next four days, 6,000 people were evacuated from their homes and 643 were treated in hospital, including 41 firefighters who had inhaled fumes or been burned by the caustic soda used to neutralise the defoliant.

The emergency forced a review of procedures for dealing with the growing problem of chemical fires and spills. It also underlined the need for coordination between separate brigades.

New Zealand Fire Service

In 1976 the newly appointed Fire Service Commission set up a centralised New Zealand Fire Service, which took over local fire boards and brigades. Organised into a hierarchy of regions, areas and districts, it was better able to deal with major emergencies, and resources could be used more effectively.

1970s and 1980s

Advances during the late 1970s and 1980s included the upgrading of fire stations, vehicles and equipment, and the introduction of computerised despatch systems.

There were also new demands on firefighters, including increased attendance at road accidents, and more arson call-outs and rest home fires. There was a major chemical fumes emergency at the ICI Riverview chemical warehouse in Auckland in 1984, during which 31 firefighters suffered ill-effects.

Restructuring in the 1990s reduced the number of fire regions and areas, with the aim of making the service more efficient.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Fires and fire services - Towards a national fire service', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 June 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 11 Mar 2010