In the 19th century most members of volunteer fire brigades were skilled tradesmen and small businessmen who wanted to make contacts and get ahead. They had enough money to take time off work for firefighting, pay the brigade membership subscription, buy a uniform, and pay fines if they did not attend a fire.
In the early 2000s volunteers came from all walks of life, but social benefits and a desire to support the local community were still incentives. In 2008 there were 7,646 New Zealanders serving in volunteer fire brigades.
Early career firefighters often had a seafaring background. Superintendent Robertson of the Dunedin brigade became New Zealand’s first paid firefighter in 1861, and there were others at a permanently-manned station at Christchurch from 1868. Numbers increased after the Second World War. There were 1,655 career firefighters in 2008.
The weaker sex?
The 1970s debate about women joining the Fire Service exposed some beliefs that have since been disproved. Opponents thought that women were physically and emotionally incapable of dealing with the demands of the job, and would disrupt the male camaraderie at fire stations. History has proved them wrong.
Women often work in administrative jobs at fire stations, and some were firefighters in volunteer brigades in the 1960s, but they had a battle to be accepted as career firefighters. When Aucklander Anne Barry applied to become a firefighter in 1979, she was turned down on the grounds of her sex. Barry took the case to the Human Rights Commission, which ruled in her favour in 1981. In 2008 there were 53 women career firefighters and 880 volunteers.
In the 1930s larger fire stations built accommodation for firefighters and their wives. Married men were paid more than single men, and were promoted to officer ranks. In the 2000s firefighters must pass exams to progress through various ranks from qualified firefighter up to chief fire officer.
The working day was once highly regimented: firemen could not leave the station without permission, and spent most of their time doing menial cleaning and maintenance tasks. Discipline is still important in firefighting, but now there is more emphasis on teamwork, and the range of tasks is wider and more specialised. An average day may include visits to local businesses to discuss safety issues, study, equipment checks and fire callouts.
Volunteer firefighters in small towns might attend only a few fires each year. However, in cities, career firefighters have traditionally worked long hours. In 2008 they usually worked four days on, four days off, in two 10-hour day shifts followed by two 14-hour night shifts.
Regional firefighters’ unions were formed just before the First World War to achieve better pay and working conditions. In 1988 they merged to form the New Zealand Professional Firefighters’ Union.
In 1974 professional firefighters sought pay parity with police officers. The Christchurch brigade went on strike in 1975, forcing the government to bring in armed services to provide fire protection. In the 1990s the Professional Firefighters’ Union took legal action to challenge restructuring plans to reduce firefighter numbers and alter working conditions. The long-running dispute was not resolved until 2001.
The first Fire Service training school was opened at Island Bay, Wellington, in 1958. Another was opened in Auckland in 1967. In 2006 they were superseded when the National Training Centre opened at Rotorua.
The New Zealand firefighters calendar, featuring bare-chested firemen posing with firefighting equipment, has a cult following. It began in 1990 as a way of raising money for New Zealand participation in the annual World Firefighter Games. A percentage of funds goes towards the Child Cancer Foundation. In 2009 a calendar of female firefighters was produced to raise funds for the Breast Cancer Foundation.
Becoming a firefighter
Volunteer firefighters must be physically fit, and pass a medical test and security clearance before being accepted. They then take a seven-day course covering use of breathing apparatus, first aid, and realistic fire training. This is followed by weekly brigade training nights.
The requirements for career firefighters are tougher. Applicants must first pass an exam that tests literacy, maths and problem-solving abilities, and a physical test of fitness, strength, agility and endurance. They must then complete a four-hour practical assessment course to gauge their aptitude for firefighting tasks. Following this there is a formal interview, a medical check, and reference and security checks. Only those candidates who pass each stage are accepted for training. Recruits attend a 12-week course covering all aspects of firefighting and also education and prevention work.