It’s said in family circles that just as soon as I was old enough, and I think it must have been when I was 7, I was allowed to travel alone by tram to and from Newmarket to visit my grandfather. It’s also told that on one occasion I deliberately stayed on the tram, having paid for the additional distance or not, to make a visit to Central Fire Station in Pitt Street.
My mission was to look over the fire engines through the station’s open doors. I was probably hanging out for a turnout, when loud-ringing bells would be heard throughout the building and within a few seconds firemen would swarm around the appliances, donning boots, tunics and helmets before taking up their positions on the big red vehicles which then, one after the other, would sweep out into Pitt Street, sirens wailing and red lights flashing. It was every young boy’s dream. For me, maybe, this was the start of what was to become a lifetime interest.
I don’t know where this interest originally came from. There was no ‘fire brigade blood’ in our family as there decidedly is in others where, generation after generation sons, grandsons, nephews and, latterly, daughters and grand- daughters, join the fire service and each serve for many years until the next generation is old enough to enrol. My father was a volunteer in the St John Ambulance for nigh on 40 years but as far as I can tell this had no bearing in my interest in another emergency service.
We did not live near a fire station so this did not have influence. In fact the family home in Epsom could not be further from a fire station, a suburb ill-served in this respect, equi-distant from Remuera, Mt Eden and Mt Roskill stations. (Nearer fire stations in Epsom, Newmarket and One Tree Hill had long since closed down).
Father had one or two on again-off again friendships with those in the fire brigade, resulting from movie evenings in fire stations when he provided the projector. Dick Webb, I recall, was at the old Mt Albert Station in New North Road, when on Saturday nights the fire engine would be parked outside so the engine bays could be converted to a cinema for firemen, family and friends.
Another tenuous connection I had with Central Fire Station… the one which, it is claimed I had visited on the tram… was the presence at Epsom Normal Primary School of “Bus People”. These were the pupils who travelled by bus to and from school using the scheduled services on the Hospitals Route which ran between the City and Cornwall Hospital in Greenlane.
These buses passed both Central Fire Station and Epsom Normal Primary so fire-fighters living in quarters found it easy for their children to take the bus each day, door-to-door, joining other students who also lived along the route in Grafton and around Mountain Road and Gilles Avenue. These, then, were the “Bus People”. It seemed a long way for the kids who lived at the fire station to travel, but there wasn’t another school in the immediate vicinity and the bonus was an offer of high standard tuition at Epsom. Being a Normal School it took in student teachers, thus had a higher calibre of classroom teacher, who were more frequently inspected and regularly re-graded. I am sure I was not the only pupil at Epsom School to admire the lifestyle of the fire station kids who went home each afternoon to live amid such excitement! The Cox boy was one of them: I was later to learn that his father, Ken, was a whizz mechanic and engineer who kept Auckland’s fire engine fleet up to scratch. Perhaps remarkably, I did not have close friendship with any of the Bus People, including fire station kids. But most, if not all, pupils at Epsom School were jealous of Bus People because they were never kept back after school as a disciplinary measure. If a class or group had to stay in as a detention, Bus People were excused…they had to leave the school just after 3pm in order to catch the bus!
Just a word about what was later to become Route 18, the Cornwall Hospital service. In my childhood I realised that it must hold something of a world record, not known as the “Hospital Route” for nothing. From the city it passed St Helen’s Maternity Hospital in Pitt Street, Huia Private and Auckland Public Hospitals in Park Road, Mater Hospital in Mountain Road, then Brightside Hospital, followed by Lavington and St David’s in Gillies Avenue, the major Green Lane Hospital, followed by Cornwall Geriatric and then with the terminus at Cornwall Maternity Hospital. (Later, when Cornwall was demolished, the service terminated at the new National Women’s Hospital). Older, Bedford, buses had to be rostered on this route because newer models were too heavy to meet weight restrictions on Grafton Bridge.
I think I should explain Cornwall Hospital. It was built as an expedient, a temporary construction on 75 acres of land in Cornwall Park during World War Two for the American military and named the 39th General Hospital. The institution comprised many wards, herring-bone like, off a main corridor which was more than a mile long (1.6kms).
Full facilities were provided… operating theatres, nurses’ accommodation, offices, a steam boiler to provide heating and hot water and there were static water tanks for firefighting. The Americans figured that their troops injured in the South Pacific recuperated much better if they were transferred to hospital in Auckland. Cooler weather aided healing and there weren’t the tropical diseases and insects to complicate recovery. In fact, the Americans reckoned that, even adding in the time taken for the trip to and from New Zealand, injured men and women could be back on active duty in just half the time it took if they were treated in Island hospitals at the front.
After the war the buildings were turned over to civilian use, with geriatric wards (called Cornwall Hospital) and obstetric and gynaecological services (from 1955 known as National Women’s Hospital) and until the new National Women’s Hospital was officially opened in Claude Road in February 1964. That then left just the geriatric wards, but they, too, were demolished by 1975, the land returned more than 30 years later to the citizens of New Zealand as parkland. Today, apart from one or two historic plaques, there is little trace of what was once an enormous hospital… and the terminus for the “Hospitals” bus service which, in about 7 kilometres, serviced no fewer than at least 10 medical facilities.
Fire Safety Officer
There were but a few major fires around Epsom during my childhood, so this was not a factor in my interest in fire-fighting. I recall a serious factory fire at the corner of Claude Road and Manukau Road one Friday night which had plenty of flames and smoke and held up a lot of trams unable to proceed because of hoses across the tracks in Manukau Road. Then there was a fire in Mrs Bishop’s house in King Edward Avenue which all kids in the area went to watch. This was followed much later by a day-time blaze in an old people’s home in The Drive, very near where we lived. A careless painter with a blow-torch was burning off paint when the kauri timbers caught alight. I guess the thick black smoke came from the residual gum in the wood.
I was not a youthful experimenter with fire. I did not have any model steam engines, as some of my friends experimented with. So that was not a factor driving my later pursuit.
I had an interest in fire safety when, at age 16 I think it was. I visited Central Fire Station, this time by appointment, to apply for a Safety Officer’s Certificate for Places of Public Assembly, which would allow me to carry out fire prevention duties at the Regent Cinema, Epsom, where I worked part-time. I put my age up, said I was the son of the cinema manager (I had been advised this would help), answered all the questions and subsequently qualified with my certificate, signed by one Station Officer Dowdle, to prove I had passed. I was told at the time I was the youngest ever to attain the qualification!
Despite these passing brushes with the fire brigade, unlike most young boys, it was not a career I ever thought about, even fleetingly. The fact that I had the wrong build might have come into it, but being a fireman as an occupation never occurred to me.
An Interest Kindled
In fact my real interest in the fire service did not surface until my late teens when I began as a reporter in the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation’s (NZBC’s) Auckland newsroom. As well as “generals” (a great assortment of story-lines dictated by whatever was news of the day!), I was given the emergency service round to concentrate on.
I was frequently reporting major fires – they seemed remarkably regular in those days – and I soon realised there was a bit more to fire-fighting than indiscriminately squirting water on the flames.
None the more so when I reported a very hot and long-duration blaze in which very little water of itself was used.
It was an early evening fire in a tank at Shell Oil Company’s installation, part of the Freemans Bay complex where bulk petrol, oils and other chemicals were stored. There had been an explosion in a large tank which had peeled back the top with the possibility of its contents, 300,000 gallons (1,300,000 litres) of kerosene, boiling over, on fire and spreading to adjacent tanks. The outbreak occurred just in time for mention on the early evening news bulletin with a special news item with film reportage to show the effects of the blaze, its thick black smoke and battle-weary fire-fighters. The fire was fought almost exclusively with foam, thousands of gallons of the stuff, pumped on to the fire and used to cool and douse surrounding tanks.
I recall updating the storyline on 1ZB breakfast bulletins next morning – there had been no let-up in fire-fighting efforts right through the night which, in the end, lasted some 16 hours until it was certain the fire was out. I became very aware of choice of medium to make the attack, in this case foam, how it was to be applied, the number of fire-fighters required (some had to be spelled), making certain of the availability of sufficient foam supplies and at the same time ensuring adequate protection of Auckland city and suburbs, given that so many appliances were engaged at Freemans Bay. Oh yes, there was a bit more to this fire-fighting business!
There was another first on the waterfront later that year, on Christmas Day in fact, when an early morning blaze broke out in the electricity sub-station on Kings Wharf. With no windows the basement of the building was black as pitch at the best of times but this morning it was smoke-logged, a fire cooking away deep inside the building involving electrical switchgear and condenser oil deep. It was doubly dangerous for fire crews to enter given that some parts of the building and equipment might be alive with high voltages… the substation took in 110,000 volts, breaking it down for distribution to down-town Auckland. At first fire-fighters tried to enter wearing breathing apparatus and setting up lifelines so they could recover their footsteps if they got disoriented or endangered in the impossible smoke, heat and darkness. (it was the first, and one of the few times, I saw fire-fighters deploy this safety method of life-lines). But it was not safe in these circumstances and Executive Officers called all crews out of the building. It was decided to use a new firefighting agent, High Expansion Foam, (HEF), supplies of which happened to be in Auckland for the fire brigade to trial. Mixed with water the concentrate foam bubbles, a bit like thick soap powder, expanding as it mixes and once pumped into a building rapidly fills each compartment cooling the atmosphere and starving the fire of oxygen. Firemen found the HEF met all its claims, it was a triumph, putting out the blaze without using water which would have much more seriously damaged the electrical gear in the substation. And this meant the fire-fighters did not have to risk entry into the heated and fume-laden atmosphere inside. It was a pretty impressive operation!
That year, 1966, the enthusiastic reporter brought news to 1ZB listeners and AKTV2 viewers of a wide diversity of calls the fire brigade attended. I also reported the affairs of the Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board, attending its monthly meetings.
On the fire-front, I recounted the kerosene blaze at Freemans Bay, the smouldering outbreak in confined spaces of the power sub-station, huge stacks of timber alight in Carter’s yard at Takanini and rescue from the flight-deck of an Air New Zealand DC8 plane which had crashed, with fatalities, during training exercises on to the main runway at Auckland Airport. Described in more detail later.
Then there was an explosion in a foundry in Avondale which a student of the super-natural reckoned had been started by a visiting flying saucer. Investigators, however, believed the real cause to be an overheated chemical bath.
Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board administered fire services in Greater Auckland. It quietly went about its business, over the years hiding a certain air of innovation. I found it quite difficult to get its officials to co-operate with news items even when, time and again, there were storylines which showed the Board was forward-thinking, providing additional services and facilities to shape future fire protection in metropolitan Auckland. Early in 1966 the Board had agreed to amalgamate with brigades in South Auckland and to provide fire cover in outer Western suburbs and the Board’s responsibilities were further expanded the following year. Leading a trend towards fire prevention that was way ahead of the times, the Board formed a Fire Prevention Department in 1967. To cope with ever-increasing emergency calls a new control room was built with state-of-the-art technology and the Board agreed to a fleet replacement programme to ensure it operated modern and reliable appliances.
The Board provided for new fire stations at Mangere and Beachlands as well as workshops at Otahuhu and in November 1967 the Training Centre was officially opened at Mount Wellington, an adjunct to the national training school in Wellington.
Times of Change
In the mid-1960s it was apparent that some of Auckland’ s local volunteer fire brigades were no longer capable of properly protecting the burgeoning suburbs and fringe-dwellers as the city grew in all directions. Such was the growth in residential, commercial and industrial areas that turnout times, and the hit-and-miss availability of experienced fire-fighters around the clock, meant the community no longer received the fire services it warranted, and deserved. There was tremendous growth on the North Shore following the opening of the Harbour Bridge in1959: North Shore Fire Board planned additional fire-cover. And a huge new city was planned in South Auckland, to be named Manukau. Beyond the boundaries of the prospering Henderson, subdivisions were planned on sloping farmland in Massey, Ranui and Swanson. Ten-acre blocks became possible, and popular, where fringe high-density housing ended. To the East, home buyers sought seaside sections or those with a view out over the Gulf. Beach baches, extended and modernised, became fulltime housing. New industrial areas supplanted Penrose as the sole recognised “factory area”, with developments in, for example, Wairau Valley, Wiri, Glen Eden, Lincoln, Otahuhu, and Henderson Valley. As business expanded so did the areas designated by town planners as Industrial. The new international airport brought with it new risks, not only at Mangere, but the flight path to the east over mushrooming housing estates, an industrial area and Manukau City centre with its planned shopping centre and Council Headquarters.
On reflection, these were good times, economically and socially. Baby boomers were at the age where they needed jobs, housing and recreational facilities. Auckland was rapidly growing up, too, and so the old ways of fire protection had to be reviewed.
In 1961 Chief Fire Service Officer T. A. Varley, reporting to the Fire Service Council, said Auckland’s “extraordinary rapid urbanisation” was causing increasing problems to local authorities . Solutions had to be found, fire services must be included to meet new and greater risks across the isthmus because “no fire brigade can itself be self-sufficient… … the logical way to cater for the fire defence is to spread the cost, share resources to operate under one central control and thus attain efficiency and economy”. He offered a blueprint for amalgamation, new stations in expanding suburbs. The Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board, under the then current legislation, would be left to institute the changes. And just as 30 years before when Auckland’s settlement overtook adequate fire protection, the Board began to wrestle with the takeover of suburban volunteer fire brigades.
It really was time to ring the changes. Take the major early morning fire at Poultrymen’s Cooperative’s grain processing plant at Massey? Who, exactly, was in charge of fire-fighting? I counted at least 6 white Chief’s helmets on site (Henderson, Glen Eden, Greenhithe, Herald Island, Titirangi and Auckland Metropolitan Brigades). Each brigade had left their protected district to assist at Massey. There seemed little coordination. Change would mean that, one by one, the local brigades would be taken over by the Fire Board, fulltime crews assigned where necessary and the volunteer element would be back-up for both the local crew and those in adjoining stations. This meant white helmets often had to be relinquished… the Chiefs reduced in rank: the district they once managed now absorbed into the bigger amalgamated Greater Auckland.
Fire Brigade Battles
This would mean an end to fireground battles where from time to time there had been competition as to which brigade should fight the fire. In East Auckland full-time, paid, firefighters had tangled with volunteers from neighbouring Howick district: career officers had been told, if they were turned out to blazes in Howick’s area, to offer their services and if not required, to retreat. At one house fire there was argument about exactly where the property was in relation to the boundary, and whose fire it was. Both brigades having decided to fight the fire, an argument followed about who would be in charge! And another classic, Howick brigade proceeding along Pakuranga Road perceived the fire was in Mt Wellington’s territory, so turned back. Mt Wellington believed the smoke was way beyond the boundary, so they, too, returned to station. The result was neither brigade attended! An inquiry followed. There were other stories about volunteer fire brigades “keeping their fires to themselves”, refusing to call for support despite developing fire-spread. They wanted their brigade to see the job out, even if was, in reality, beyond them. And no way did the officer in charge wish to give up command to interlopers “from town” as Pitt Street Headquarters was referred to. Rather than self-centred heroics, I think some of these stories were really examples of incompetence (not realising resources required), inexperience (unaware how quickly fire can spread) and lack of leadership (showing reluctance to seek help). As for fire prevention, there was notable consistency across each of the many fire districts: there was precious little, they were merely following central government’s disinterest, inaction and lack of funding.
There were further battles when the spotlight fell on inadequate water supplies for firefighting. To date water reticulation had been provided and maintained by each local authority with a variety of standards and facilities. For instance, in Auckland’s inner suburbs some underground water mains ended at the borough council boundary, seriously affecting flows available to the fire brigade. The Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board enhanced its Water Department to inspect water reticulation and, where there were problems, asking councils to improve flows. This led to frequent letter-writing as the Fire Board confronted local authorities with evidence of inadequate supplies that did not meet standards required for fire-fighting and insisting that improvements be made. The Insurance lobby began making noises about the worst examples saying premiums in those areas would have to rise to mitigate the risks of insufficient water. But underwriters did not publicly express their threat. Comprehensive plans were compiled together with the Regional Authority and local bodies, showing the location of water mains throughout Greater Auckland and this mapping was made available at times of major fires so fire-fighters could be directed to, and access, best water sources. The Fire Board began to oversee plans for new subdivisions so they knew that adequate water would be available, that fire appliances could easily access streets and get to the many right-of-way sections being developed. This coordination also reduced the likelihood of street names being duplicated.
In 1963 the Fire Board started a new round of amalgamations by taking over fire protection in the new Manukau City and other areas were to follow with encouragement from the Fire Service Council and Local Government authorities. Many volunteer brigades withered at this point, disappearing after many years of essential community service. Among them were Papatoetoe, Manurewa, Onehunga, Mangere, Glen Eden, Herald Island (absorbed into Waitemata) and Mt Wellington, all of whom gradually dropped the volunteer element, replaced by career crews around-the-clock.
But volunteer resources were continued as a “second appliance” to maintain protection in Auckland’s suburbs such as Devonport, East Coast Bays, Birkenhead, Howick and Papakura. Volunteer brigades were retained, sometimes enlarged, on the outskirts at Greenhithe, Te Atatu, Beachlands, Kumeu, Silverdale, Clevedon, Piha, Waiatarua, Laingholm and on Waiheke, the city’s island dormitory suburb.
Enhanced fire protection in other areas of the ever-expanding metropolis over the years gave birth to other stations, retaining the volunteer ethic and ethos in the community, at the likes of Kawakawa Bay, Waitemata and Manly.
I was interested in a discernible move towards the Americanisation of local fire services which I later reported on TV news by illustrating a collection of all aspects I could find to confirm the trend.
It must be remembered that our fire services in New Zealand… without proper national oversight until 1974 when Fire Boards were abolished by a new Fire Service Act… had for more than a hundred years an unmistakeable British look and feel. Operations were based on British techniques and standards. The vast majority of appliances since manual hose reels were made in the UK (Merryweather, Dennis, Simonis, Bedford, Karrier and Commer), uniforms were of British manufacture (Lancer Jackets, Cromwell Helmets, Ash-handled Axes), examinations were set by fire executives from august British brigades (through the London-based Institution of Fire Engineers), text books came from England (Manual of Firemanship, for many years the fireman’s “Bible”) and some of our senior officers had come from, or been trained in, the UK (such as T. A. Varley , W. E. Henderson, A. W. Bruce). Thus, for many decades fire services’ vehicles, equipment, uniform, protective gear, training and administration in New Zealand had been based along British lines.
So, to me, it was a major diversion when the Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board introduced, at first, just a touch of Americana. But this later became a notable trend, as the Board found the best equipment on the international market with which to equip its fire brigades. This did not mean it was turning its back on British-made; rather the Board was prepared to purchase what best suited local needs. Aucklanders probably never fully realised how progressive and far-sighted the Board members and executive officers were during the 1960s, resulting in a world-class brigade.
The very first taste of the American look came way back in 1960, before my time reporting emergency services, but I like to think the Fire Board’s purchase of a brand new Holden station wagon as a Control Car began a certain development.
The vehicle was stationed at Headquarters in Pitt Street and conveyed the Chief or his Deputy to major emergencies. Nothing American about that… a station wagon out of the Australian General Motors stable… but it was the livery which gave it a very distinctive look, with its red, white and gold paint scheme, the two large chrome sirens on the roof and the flashing red light. The real “nod” to Americanisation, to me, was abandoning the signage “Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board”, a style that had, to date, been slavishly followed on all the Board’s vehicles but now replaced with the words “Fire Dept”. How different… and as American as apple pie!
In 1968 the first International-powered fire appliance, the AACO 183, arrived on the scene, the first fire engine of many to follow built along American lines and with the powerful US Darley pumping units.
An International hose-layer followed closely: over the next 20 years there would be more than 40 fire engines purchased of this same brand, either as pumping appliances or combined pumping/rescue tenders. There were several specialist vehicles purchased, too, such as a tanker and rescue tenders with cranes attached, along with an International 1820, the first of the heavy pumpers.
In 1970 the unmistakeable look in American helmets was introduced when Cromwell helmets (a “look” that had become synonymous with fire-fighters, starting with brass helmets and later copied in cork and composite materials) were replaced by much lighter polycarbonate “Chieftain” models which had the “Yankee” pronounced curling lip at the back to give added protection to the firefighter’s neck.
The Americanisation reflected in helmets was reinforced soon after when executive officers in the Auckland began wearing white “Chieftains” with leather mitre-shaped badges attached to the front, declaring their rank in the Brigade and with their names embossed.
Here they were at fires in Penrose and Henderson, at Epsom and Mangere, looking like they had stepped straight out of the pages of American catalogues showing the latest styles worn by Battalion Chiefs in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles! Unlike most other American influences introduced around this time, this one did not last.
That same year the “Snorkel” appliance was commissioned in Auckland, the first aerial platform in New Zealand, replacing the traditional turn table ladder which, to date, had satisfied New Zealand’s need for aerial fire-fighting and rescues.
Built on an International chassis, the Snorkel, with a 20 meter reach had “Made in USA” written all over it. It was a wonder it wasn’t Left Hand Drive!
And the heavy, woollen felt-like Lancer tunics, so long part of fire service tradition with thesilver buttons down the front and axe hanging from a belt at the waist, were also phased out in 1970, replaced by light-weight black “Hyperlon” tunics.
With their metal clips in front they, too, were very much part of the American look, but didn’t last. They didn’t stand up to exposure to high temperatures and so were replaced with the safer but even more American-looking silver foil-like “Nomex” coats, complete with across-the-chest metal clips. With the purchase of large American cars (Ford Falcons) for Executive Officers and Control Cars, the Americanisation was complete. Well, not, quite.
To coincide with new radio communications in 1971 the recently introduced “K” code was extended to the “Greater Alarm” system. These new radio procedures meant there was a K code allocated to each of the most frequently transmitted messages. Whereas, before, an officer would transmit a message over the radio “one person dead”, the K code simplified this to “K9-1” thus saving radio time and retaining a certain discretion over the radio waves. All fire-fighters (and those, like me, who wanted to know what was going on!) had to learn the K Code! It was later adopted nation-wide and is still in use today.
The Greater Alarm system was designed to simplify requests over the radio for back-up. Traditionally officers would call “Make Pumps” seeking reinforcements, so a major fire might warrant the radio message “Make Pumps 12, ETs 2, TTLs 1, Hose-layers 1, Canteens 1, Ambulances 1 and Police”, indicating the officer in charge was ordering on 12 pumping fire engines and the following specialist appliances: 2 Emergency tenders, 2 Turntable Ladders, a Hose-layer and a Canteen as well as requiring an ambulance and police assistance. An officer sending the new, streamlined message merely stated “Transmit 3rd Alarm”, knowing that all those appliances (and more!) would automatically be despatched by Control Room staff as part of the pre-determined response to a 3rd Alarm incident.
Regarding the old “Make Pumps” assistance message, I once asked about the science behind just how many pumps were requested. In the aftermath of a major fire at Southdown Freezing Works in the mid-1960s I enquired of Senior Station Officer Jack Kerr from Otahuhu Station how, on his way to the big blaze in the meatworks, he knew that he would need 12 pumping appliances when he transmitted on his radio to the control-room “Priority Message, proceeding along Great South Road, this building is showing up well, make pumps 12”.
“Well” he paused, “I’d had major fires in meatworks before – I saw that this one was going well and knowing that we had to bring in water some considerable distance, I sized it up. 6 pumps needed for exterior fire-fighting, 3 crews ready to make entry and 2 for relay pumping.”
“That’s only 11” I quickly pointed out.
“You’ve forgotten the one for good measure” he retorted… “always add an extra one for good luck… chances are you’ll need it.” So said the wise veteran.
Together with abandoning daily radio tests of all appliances and fire station base-sets (electronics had improved over the years!), these innovations added to the Americanisation of fire service communications in Auckland, helping set a style in brigades not seen before and a long way from the all-British look.
One thing, fortunately, that executive officers stopped short of was the adoption of the very American method of firefighting, from the “inside – out”, rather than the British-trained method from the “outside – in”. American Fire Departments have had many accidents to their fire-fighters, some fatal, while actively fire-fighting because (wherever possible) their basic methodology calls for the flames to be fought from inside the building, cutting off the flames and forcing them to outer perimeter walls, extinguishing the fire in the process. It seems that almost no matter what, the US fire-fighters must access the inside of the burning building to mount the initial, and continuing, attack on the flames. The British system, however, means fire-fighters fight the blaze from outside the building, inwards, making safe access as quickly as possible and then, depending on risks, the fire might be tackled from inside. While the latter is, perhaps, less heroic and telegenic, the record stands for itself – injuries and deaths are far less likely. New Zealand has retained the cautious “outside-in” approach. Fire-fighters are trained to assess risks before going into burning buildings. They are only likely to contemplate entry to make a rescue after a quick assessment of the risks – for their own safety.
But one thing – the big American Fire Departments lacked for nothing when it came to equipment. I was fortunate to have a spell at Bronx Station in New York, home of the Super Pumper, which at the time was the biggest appliance in the world with tremendous pumping capacity and every mod-con to get sufficient water to the pump, including its own accompanying tender appliance. (Notes of this visit are expanded in my NZBC recollections)
Part of the new radio procedure included “alerts”, a procedure also designed to save radio time and pinpoint, by pre-determined response, exactly what was required by the officer managing the incident.
“Green Alert” was hardly ever transmitted because it referred to a first alarm level which most calls were, anyway. “Yellow Alert” was transmitted when persons were in imminent danger, a risk that the Fire Service was immediately in action to ameliorate, while the highest “Red Alert” announced an event that was most serious requiring immediate and additional support to overcome the risk to the community.
Attached to each Alert was a pre-determined list of support and regulatory agencies that were notified by the control-room so they could be quickly on the scene.
The most common use of “Transmit a Yellow Alert” was for motor vehicle accidents where it was confirmed occupants were trapped within the vehicle, requiring extrication. It was a yellow alert because invariably they were injured and needed to be released as quickly as possible so they might receive medical treatment. Secondly, there is often a risk of crashed cars catching fire (spilt fuel, etc) and if occupants remain trapped it may be impossible to extricate them in the face of fire.
“Red Alert” was seldom used: it implied immediate and grave danger to a number of people, or part of the community, or to the emergency/rescue workers themselves and that a major effort was required to remedy the situation.
What’s believed to be the first “Red Alert” was transmitted in November 5th, 1975, Guy Fawkes Day, when a petrol tanker, full of fuel, capsized, late-afternoon, on West End Road, Herne Bay. The fuel, an estimated 6,000 litres, escaped from the damaged tanker and ran down the gutters into Cox’s creek. With the tide coming in and an on-shore breeze, the fuel was carried into the estuary which is surrounded by houses. The Fire Service, with 14 fire engines assigned, did its best to stem the flow and to contain and absorb the fuel. Roads were closed (and West End Road is a busy route to and from Western suburbs), while operations continued. Petrol in the damaged tanker that did not escape was decanted into another road tanker: it was a prolonged operation in an explosive situation. The danger to the whole district was extremely high: you could smell the fumes over a wide area. Hence the Red Alert.
I filmed the activities for that night’s news (our camera equipment wasn’t allowed anywhere near the spilt fuel in case a spark ignited the fumes!) and crossed several times to radio 1ZB, reporting the incident and warning about the widespread road closures and fumes nuisance. Then, of course, it became apparent the fumes would not dissipate by evening when Herne Bay folk would be expecting to light bonfires and set off fireworks to celebrate Guy Fawkes night. Radio bulletins and messages intensified as both the Fire Service and Police implored residents around Cox’s Creek, Westmere and Herne Bay to postpone their fireworks displays for 24 hours.
I was invited to join the Fire Section at the Museum of Transport and Technology, where vintage fire engines were preserved, lovingly maintained and shown off to museum visitors. The fire station (a circa 1950s look) also had displays of former uniforms, fire extinguishers and a model control-room showed visitors how fire calls were received from street fire alarms and the actions taken to get fire engines on the road.
On “Live Days”, when the museum was alive with working exhibits – to the enjoyment of huge crowds – the siren and/or bell would alert the duty fire crew to a “call”, some members would slide down the fire station’s pole, others would dash in from outside. Within a minute or two the elderly Ford, Dennis or Commer fire engine would respond to the courtyard where the crew, in uniform of the 1950s, would get to work establishing deliveries. Visitors would be invited to hold the branches, or nozzles, getting the feel of the powerful jets going much higher than surrounding buildings.
I spent some years, most weekends, helping at MOTAT and was elected to the Museum’s Management Committee and, ex officio, the Board of Directors. It was a sticky time, financially, for the institution and it was only through a welcome understanding by our creditors that we eventually managed to pay off our debts, reduce staff numbers to bedrock… and survive bankruptcy. At this time, in 1982, there was considerable friction between volunteers who restored, maintained and exhibited most of the Museum’s treasures, and the paid staff (management and curators) who were seen by the volunteers as “nine to fivers”, exerting too much influence and holding purse-strings too tightly. The fact was there was no purse… unlike today where MOTAT is assured funding, collected as part of Council rates. We relied entirely on gate takings and the odd cash donation. We were comparatively poor with little funding for restoration after expenses of running the place were met.
Despite careful budgeting, I was proud that several projects continued, and flourished in my time on the Management Committee. These were the start of construction of railway facilities at MOTAT 2 at Meola Road, (Sir Keith Park Memorial Site, as was known at the time) and the tram line extended, enabling visitors a decent experience riding vintage trams along Western Springs frontage to the Zoo. (Formalities frustrated the service connecting both MOTATs: that was for the future, but since completed) Then, ensuring we had sufficient rolling stock to maintain a service along the new track, in May 1982 we welcomed another tram, 321 from Melbourne donated by the Victorian State Government. And on the mundane, but most important, I saw the completion of culverting the stinking creek that flowed along the museum’s eastern boundary. It’s long forgotten now, but all those who worked at MOTAT, and our visitors, were well aware of it at the time, especially those in the Colonial Village during the hotter summer months. It certainly was a stench! The open creek, also a danger to younger visitors, was piped and covered over with lawn by year’s end, 1982.
What my association at MOTAT told me was that I would like to own a vintage fire engine. I had caught the bug. MOTAT Fire Chief, John Walker, put me on to a rare 1930 Dennis and after considerable research I found it in a barn near Oamaru, I saw it was virtually intact (John Walker knew where to get the few “missing bits”) and eventually I purchased it. Now I had one of my own.
In the late 1980s it was time to move on from MOTAT, even though in March there was to be the excitement of hosting a social event connected with a fire brigade conference – visiting fire-fighters were to have a barbecue evening meal and entertainment at MOTAT. All our vintage vehicles would be on display. But just before the event it was announced that all live displays by the Fire Section must be curtailed. It was a condition made by the Fire Service, it was advised, which was against the demonstrations, and if the turnouts and waterway drills did not stop two things would result. The Fire Service would see to it that the conference event would be taken elsewhere, to another venue, and second there would be no more donations of redundant fire engines or equipment to MOTAT.
Since the fire displays provided the only life about the Museum most weekends, apart from the tram rides which continued wet or fine, this decision, apparently dictated by the Fire Service from outside the Museum, grated with me very much. I had been a great proponent of “live weekends” and an advocate of showing off our exhibits in context with active demonstrations. When I questioned Chief Walker about the abhorrence of some other body dictating MOTAT’s business, I was told that the decision had been confirmed by the Museum Director and could not be appealed.
The dictum immediately closed down one further “live” aspect of the museum, part of its reputation carefully built up since MOTAT’s founding in 1960.
I found something else to do with my valuable weekends… I had already joined the Auckland Volunteer Fire Police in 1979 and it was taking more of my time. It was growing in size and developing into a strong, well-trained and highly-organised support unit for Auckland’s fire-fighters and emergency services. It was good to be part of it.
Membership was another way of getting close to the action when there was a major fire or other emergency where the fire service was at work. I joined the Fire Police at the invitation of the then Officer in Charge, Captain R. D. (Dick) Reid. He had suggested it some years before when, in 1975, I had returned to Auckland from periods working in Hamilton and Wellington. But I thought it would be a bit much to juggle Fire Police callouts with my around the clock duties with TV2 News. However by 1979 the new TV2 was well established and I thought coping with fire calls in the middle of the night would be much more manageable. Allan Bruce, Regional Commander at the time, supported my candidacy. Dick Reid took me to see Allan Bruce one night as firefighting operations were winding. “Dick, the sooner you get him into uniform the better!” So I knew that just as soon as I passed the security and medical test it was likely that I would be appointed… and so it was with effect from 11th June, 1979. Among the very first callouts, if not the first, was a car into a pole in Owairaka Avenue, Mt Albert, where the occupant had to be cut out using a steel-tipped circular saw, with its attendant noise and shower of sparks. I closed Owairaka Road at the Richardson Road intersection. Another early recollection was, as a Fire Policeman, receiving a red sticker with a white X for my car windscreen indicating I was exempt from the Carless Days.
During the fuel crisis most folk had to go without their car on one day a week, the same day each week, which they had nominated. Their choice was announced on a Carless Day sticker for the windscreen: their vehicle was not allowed on the road on that day, thus conserving fuel.
Fire safety and prevention messages and campaigns had not begun in earnest at that stage and sprinkler systems and private fire alarms were not then as numerous and accepted as they are now. Multiple Alarms I recall that first year were the freezing company’s cool stores on the waterfront, Aorere College at Mangere, Rendell’s Department Store and the Waitangi Day blaze at Sanitarium Health Company’s factory in Pah Road, necessitating the closure of both Pah Road and Mount Albert Road. Other massive fires in my first year were at Vitafoam, in Avondale (4th Alarm) and Bryan Jackson’s Museum at Penrose (3rd Alarm). Later in 1980 there was a big fire in the Tabernacle Buildings on the corner of Queen Street and Karangahape Road, a block of shops in New North Road, Kingsland plus a Red Alert at MacDonald’s Queen Street restaurant, a terrorist-type alert to a bomb or similar device in the premises. I, alone, closed and kept closed Wellesley Street at the Kitchener Street intersection sending all traffic into Rutland Street (now Mayoral Drive), away from Queen Street, the seat of the concern.
I enjoyed the work with Fire Police and was promoted to Lieutenant in 1982, I think it was. I attended a course for Fire Police Officers in Wellington and turned out regularly with the Unit to all kinds of emergencies from Piha to Kawa Kawa Bay, from Mercer to Helensville. I still worked for TVNZ television news so frequently came across newsroom colleagues on the fireground as they went about reporting major newsworthy events.
In April 1989 I took over as Officer in Charge (Divisional Officer) after Dick Reid retired. Dick was a hard act to follow as he was semi-retired and had as much time as it needed to manage the Fire Police Unit. I was constrained by full-time employment and, almost immediately I took over I decided I had to devolve responsibilities if the Unit was to continue and prosper. The work just had to be shared by fellow officers. Cashing in on my Parliamentary experience, I created a number of what I called “portfolios” and matched officers to oversee each of them.
Each officer had at least one portfolio, managing a particular sphere of our activities, like Secretarial, Recruitment, Uniforms, Canteen, Equipment and Training, and reporting to a kind of Cabinet, the Management Committee which I chaired. I instilled the usual Cabinet process of confidentiality and while being responsible for one’s portfolio, there was to be no intrusion into another. Collective responsibility was something new in the Fire Service: it had been rather more dictatorial.
Little did I know that Auckland Fire Service executives were watching the system, its processes and outcomes. They must have been satisfied with it because when one of their number was promoted to Headquarters in Wellington he packaged the Portfolio set-up into protocol and distributed it to volunteer brigades throughout the country, recommending its adoption.
I continued as Officer in Charge until 1993 when I was posted overseas in my fulltime job. I had to leave the Unit at that point but returned immediately my stint in Malaysia ended and was later promoted to Station Officer and, in 2010, to Deputy Chief Fire Officer. In 2017 I began a planned exit, reducing in rank to Senior Station Officer and then in 2018 to Station Officer.
To pursue my interest in fire brigades, I tried several times, unsuccessfully, for election to the Auckland Provincial Fire Brigades’ Association and though persuaded a 3rd time to stand, I concluded no matter my merits I would probably not be successful for two reasons… those voting probably considered that a fire policeman could not possibly understand the finer points of firemanship, and I was from Auckland… it counted against me. It was going to be too much for diehard smoke-eating heartland fire-fighters to swallow and give me their vote. I cowardly declined further defeat at the ballot box. That did not stop me taking interest in fire brigade association affairs. I had attended the United Fire Brigades’ Association annual conferences on behalf of Auckland Fire Police, and on one notable occasion (Hastings, 1986) I, a volunteer fire policeman, attended with Auckland’s Chief Fire Officer, R. Sampson, representing the Auckland Fire Brigade which comprised entirely career fire-fighters! CFO Sampson nominated me in the absence of anyone else showing an interest in attending the 3 day conference. My expenses were thus paid!
I have been a member of the Executive of the local Auckland District Fire Brigades’ Sub-Associations’ for many years, enabling me to keep a finger on the pulse of local volunteer brigades, and then in June 2007 I was the first appointed member to the Board of Directors of the United Fire Brigades’ Association (UFBA). This followed re-organisation of the Association’s rules and administration in which a Board of Directors was created as the governing body: some of its members elected, others appointed. My interest in all things fire was now wedded to the UFBA’s nation-wide responsibilities to volunteer fire brigades. I served on the Board for 6 years, the maximum allowed under the Rules, at the conclusion of which I was made a Life Member of the Association: an honour I was greatly touched by.
On 29th October 2011 there was a major change when the Auckland Volunteer Fire Police Unit, following Fire Service policy, had a name-change, becoming the Auckland Operational Support Brigade but also retaining its other name, Auckland Volunteer Fire Brigade. Ranks were changed consistent with the national norm, duties and tasks were set down along with training expectations and uniform entitlement.
I am not going to give an inventory of all the big fires I attended, either reporting for radio and TV news, or as a Fire Policeman. But a few novel incidents, or “firsts” bear recalling.
1970 was a year of serious fires, beginning in February with Chairs and Frames Ltd’s New Lynn factory ablaze and a week or two later by an outbreak in Blades warehouse, Penrose, where a cocktail of bulk chemicals was involved. It was a fierce fire… I saw power poles across the road from the premises catch fire in the radiated heat… and some 15 people, bystanders, firemen and an ambulance officer, were removed to hospital suffering ill-effects of inhaling fumes given off by the chemicals. I would like to think this was the start in Auckland of concern about the storage of chemicals: no licences were required, no labels or signs on warehouses warned about dangerous goods stored within and fire-fighters had no special protective uniform against such corrosive and noxious chemicals. There was no licensing for transporting chemicals by truck or train and if a truck overturned off the highway no one knew what was contained in drums or cans, often bearing just a skull and crossbones as a warning!
The Blades emergency was all to be repeated 14 years later when ICI’s River View warehouse in Mt Wellington caught fire engulfing another cocktail of dangerous chemicals including herbicides and insecticides like 245T. The 4th Alarm fire apparently started after a reaction between chemicals stored within the warehouse… flames quickly took over, destroying the bulk of the building and its contents. The resulting fumes threatened residents down-wind of the blaze who were warned over radio stations to go indoors and close all the windows and doors. Meantime, chemicals combined with the water used for fire-fighting and flowed into the Tamaki Estuary, killing fish and wildlife. A workman died as the result of burns: more than 30 fire-fighters and staff members were injured at the time of the fire, but worse, for months afterwards those involved said they were suffering ill-effects. Fire-fighters thought the Fire Service Commission was delaying suitable medical treatment and compensation. It was not until an Enquiry was convened in March 1989 that impartial studies were made, and the findings were released in January 1990. Meantime, some of those claiming to have suffered as the result of the fire had sought treatment of their own, some by a doctor controversially using “alternative medicine”. Firefighter Tony Jennings died of leukaemia in December 1988. The Enquiry found that while some health problems were attributable to attendance at the ICI fire, long-term effects were the result of “understandable stress caused by involvement in the fire”. The Enquiry found that fire-fighters should not have been exposed to chemicals at the fire, the system let them down with scant regard for their safety, there was no immediate co-ordinated health response for those involved in fire-fighting at ICI: fire-fighters had become embroiled in an on-going controversy about their health and the likely cause of their suffering, concerns aggravated by wrangling with their employers about compensation.
This major incident, coupled with the Parnell Fumes event in 1973 (more than 600 affected persons requiring hospital treatment after fumes from leaking drums set off a local state of emergency) and several other chemical scares… some involving toxic substances never before heard of… meant laws dealing with the storage and transport of hazardous materials needed dusting off and overhauling. It was to take time.
It was not until well into the 1990s before legislation was amended or introduced to properly regulate the industries dealing in chemicals, their importation, storage, transportation and, most importantly, accurate labelling using internationally recognised names and codes to spell out exactly what they are and how best to deal with them if they leak or are involved in fire.
In 1971 the “Slumbertime” Mattress Company’s factory in Wellington Street, Freemans Bay, caught fire, the blaze centred at the front of the building but rapidly spreading to the rear. Fire engines from Ponsonby and Fire Headquarters had not far to travel to the building but despite their swift arrival, the flames were galloping through the place. Early on the scene was fire-buff Stuart Brandt, a regular attendee at major fires. Stuart was American by birth and had retained membership in a number of Fire Buff Associations in the U.S, even after settling in Auckland. He was also a handy photographer and took pictures for the fire-fighters’ union magazine and sometimes sold action shots to newspapers. He had accessed the “Slumbertime” fire from the rear of the burning premises and as he ventured down the side of the building to get telling pictures, he came across a loading bay, part of which was a lean-to, complete with a phone and desk. This was obviously the storeman’s “office” where inward and outward goods were checked. Much to Stuart’s amazement the phone began ringing, never mind that the front of the factory was well alight and flames by now shooting through the corrugated iron roof! Not one to miss a trick he jumped up on the cart-dock and answered the phone.
“It’s Mrs So and So here from Remuera, and I’m very disappointed that the King Size mattress I ordered has not been delivered… you people are now more than a week overdue. What are you going to do about it?!” Stuart came into his own. He always had a quirky sense of humour and it did not escape him on this occasion. He told the woman there would be further delay; the factory was on fire from end to end. Thinking this some practical joke she demanded to be put through to the manager… and then the line went dead, the wiring probably at that instant burned through. Stuart later told us that, to the woman, it would appear that he had hung up on her, perhaps interpreted as a further put-off rather than owning up to a late delivery. He hoped that the unfortunate lady later heard about the fire at “Slumbertime” and that she realised that his explanation about the factory being ablaze was absolutely true and pretty good reason for a further delay in delivering her new mattress. And perhaps she told the tale many times over, dining out on it during her Remuera “elevenses” and society afternoon teas!
I wasted no time to interview Stuart for TV News about the phone call. It was a most amusing add-on to the fire item.
Ron Neary’s Discoveries
It can be surprising what one finds on the fire ground… places where there are, or have been, fires and where the occupants do not expect outsiders to call or see what’s going on.
3rd Officer Ron Neary made 2 discoveries late one night when he arrived as executive officer at fire roaring through a house in Westwood Terrace, off Shelly beach Road in Herne Bay. The first shock was that a source of water for fire-fighting could not be found either in the short no-exit Westwood Terrace or out on the main road it ran off, Shelly Beach Road. The Council’s contractors had recently resealed the footpaths and had covered all the fire hydrants with tar-seal as well as the yellow kerbside indicators. Fire-fighters had only the water in tanks on the 3 fire engines which attended, and not much head-way was made on the fire when they were emptied. Only when long feeder lines were run from hydrants in Jervois Road, 250 meters away, was adequate water available and meantime the house had been all but destroyed. Ron Neary’s confirmation of the covered-up hydrants and thus the extraordinary delay in fire-fighting was relayed in a radio message to Deputy Chief Alan Bruce and he soon arrived on the scene, heard to be loudly decrying the Council’s mistake. He was so angry it looked like I had a good news story… house burns down because Council workmen hide the hydrants!
Ron Neary’s second shock occurred when he went down the path beside the house, around to the back to make a check on fire-spread: copybook procedure. There on the lawn in the darkness he could just make out what he thought were bodies, people perhaps burnt in the fire who had escaped into the garden. Thinking the worse, he went over to inspect the bodies. He soon found that the 2 couples were in some drug-enhanced state, heartily engaged in sexual intercourse, and oblivious of the fire, Ron Neary, or anything else around them. “I felt like putting the hoses on them to cool their ardour,” said Ron. He got some fire-fighters to disengage the couples and escort them to safety out in the street. Another nice tale to add to the news item about the house-fire, I thought.
But neither of Ron’s surprises reached the radio and TV audiences as they should. Alan Bruce, after his initial, on-the-spot complaint against the Council would not repeat his criticism on camera so some of the sting went out of the story when I was left to report it without his strong words. And after discussion with sub-editors back in the newsroom, it was agreed the story of the 2 couples was a bit risqué for our early-evening news bulletin and should be dropped.
More About Less Water
There was no happy ending after a house-fire in Mount Eden where fire-fighters, again, could not find sufficient water. It was a villa-type residence near Eden Terrace situated right on the border between Mount Eden and Mount Albert Borough Councils. Each Borough, or local council, was responsible for providing adequate water flows in underground pipes to meet fire-fighting needs. Unfortunately the Brigade got a late call to the fire in the early hours of the morning and the big villa was engulfed down one side when firemen arrived. Being between Boroughs the water mains were not “through” flows, the pipes either came to a dead end at the borough boundary or part of a ring main arrangement, taking the pipes back into each Borough. Without sufficient flows not enough water could be found to adequately supply pumping appliances and the fire raced through the rest of the house, trapping an elderly occupant inside. The woman died in the fire and there was never a more pitiful or sorrowful sight I witnessed as her aged husband, in his night attire (probably the only possessions he was left with) out on the footpath hopefully awaiting word of a miracle rescue.
Knowing where water sources are, or finding them, for fire-fighting are always front of mind for those called to deal with fires in the country. Most rural brigades, pre-prepared, have all known water sources marked on a map. Rivers, a creek, a farmer’s private dam, tanks, a reservoir or perhaps a swimming pool beside a farm-house will be mapped together with best access. Some brigades rely on their water tankers responding, or those of neighbouring brigades or belonging to the local Dairy Company. But in urban/rural fringe brigades it can be a bit hazy and a mix of water mains (reticulated areas) and “other sources” must be used. Some urban districts are settled long before they are reticulated, leaving gaps in fire-fighters’ arsenal.
Such was the case in the fire in a restaurant high in Waitakere Ranges at Waiatarua in January 1970. The “Dutch Kiwi”, owned by Rolf Feijen and Hans Romaine (two Dutchmen who had become Kiwis), had for 10 years provided a new-style continental dining experience from, as they boasted, their “Top of the Scenic Drive Location” with sweeping views of Auckland. The blaze was thought to have started in the chip fryer and quickly engulfed the building, the smoke and flames easily visible from all over Auckland.
The building had been an old boarding house, mostly wooden, and built on several levels down the hill… a perfect “chimney” effect which was to draw the fire through upper levels. Onlookers, as well as the fire brigade, rushed to the scene. Sightseers blocked the way of those fire engines not only responding up to the fire but also those coming down the hill with lights flashing and sirens blaring. There was no water supply to speak of at the “Dutch Kiwi” and fire-fighters set up a shuttle service of fire engines fetching water from the nearest reticulated mains way down in Oratia. Getting water to the fire was thus hampered until police and traffic officers could get the access roads closed and cleared of spectators.
Only the walls remained standing. I interviewed the upset owners for TV news immediately after the fire and like many other business people who suffer a fire, they were desolate about prospects, but on this occasion thankful no one had been hurt in the blaze. They had no thoughts of re-establishing the business then, nor later. They did not go back there.
Then there are fires where great care must be taken not to use too much water while extinguishing fires. I recall reporting 2 blazes in Auckland where almost every gallon (in those days) put on the fire was carefully measured. These were outbreaks deep in the holds of the island trading ships “Tofua” and Taveuni”, both belonging to the Union Steamship Company and both at the time tied up alongside wharves in Auckland. In both cases copra was on fire, but the “Tofua” blaze involved banana cases as well.
These fires ‘tween decks are always difficult. Access is often a problem, breathing apparatus has to be used, fire-fighters have to work in cramped and confined spaces, often in intense heat and fumes which mean that crews have to be regularly spelled, requiring more than twice the usual complement. Water usage on these ship-board fires is continually scrutinised because the trim, and eventually the equilibrium, of the ship may be compromised if more water is used than the vessel’s pumps can handle. There are plenty of examples of blazing ships sinking or flipping over alongside a wharf because excess water has been pumped on to the fire. The fire aboard “Taveuni” in August 1970 burned and smouldered through 150 tons of copra before being extinguished in a long fire-fight involving 12 pumping fire engines, 4 specialist appliances and many support vehicles. As a precaution the Harbour Board tug “William C Daldy” towed the freighter “Konini” out of danger from a berth adjacent to “Taveuni”, the tug then filling “Taveuni’s” forward ballast tank with water to maintain the ship’s trim. Both tugs “Daldy” and “Te Awahina” used their firefighting gear to help quell the blaze.
Neither “Tofua” nor “Taveuni” was structurally affected and not long after the fires returned to their scheduled sailings around the South Pacific.
In 1972 my career in broadcasting took me to Hamilton as Chief reporter of the NZBC radio and television Newsroom. News was the only TV operation in the newish, but largely abandoned, TV studio so I was de facto TV boss. From Hamilton the staff of about 6 journalists covered an enormous territory, gathering news items from Mercer to Coromandel in the north, all Waikato, most of King Country and as far south as Mt Ruapehu.
As soon as I settled at 1ZH in Alma Street premises, I made contact with the fire brigade in Hamilton, and progressively other brigades throughout the region. My interest in things fire did not wane. There were a few major fires in Hamilton city in the few years I was stationed there, notably a department store/showrooms, the nurses’ home adjacent to the hospital and the Courthouse, almost a stately building badly damaged by a suspicious fire late one night.
On the outskirts of the city there were several peat fires, often taking days to extinguish, a large orchard shed (including chemicals) caught fire in Hamilton East and there was a blaze in flats at Frankton that spread to houses on either side.
Further afield, the township of Tahuna all but burned down one night, the freezing works at Horotiu had one or two serious fires and the mill at Kinleith, near Tokoroa, also had a major blaze.
It was while I was in Hamilton we cooperated with the TV series “Country Calendar” to make a programme about fire safety in the rural environment. The show would be divided into 2: fire safety and prevention tips aimed at all those who lived in farming and more remote areas of New Zealand which might not have immediate response from the Fire Service because of distances to be travelled, and then on their arrival, lack of water supplies. The second part was to show why it’s essential to get out of a burning building, and stay out. We planned to do this by burning down a derelict, empty, house near Te Rapa to show how rapidly fire can spread. We would load it with fuel akin to usual household contents, let it burn and then local fire brigades would arrive and put it out: an exercise for them, too. The programme succeeded in its fire safety message to farmers’ families about the unique fire dangers found in the country and what they can do to lessen risk of fire and, in case it’s needed, provide additional water sources close to their house and outbuildings: a swimming pool, for instance.
The fire was lit inside the house and was allowed it to burn, uninterrupted, for 9 minutes, I think it was, the time it would take for fire engines to travel to the scene from the nearest fire station. They arrived and tackled the blaze, by now engulfing the whole building. They were soon backed up by Dairy Company tankers full of water for fire fighting. (This useful service is provided by the dairy factory at Te Rapa and some others throughout New Zealand, filling a tanker or two with water every evening before knock-off time in case it’s needed overnight for firefighting, and rostering a driver). Despite the fact that we announced in newspapers and on radio well in advance that the house-burn was taking place, the thick black smoke and then towering flames, caused a deluge of 111 calls to the fire service and police stations.
Another item I did for the network TV bulletin was how, with forced power cuts to save electricity, volunteer fire brigades would cope, because normally their members were alerted to an emergency call-out by electrically-powered sirens. I canvassed Cambridge, Tokoroa, Matamata and Morrinsville Brigades and a couple of Bay of Plenty stations. They had an interesting array of alternative arrangements. In the days before mobile phones, several brigades had a ring-around system of telephone alerts, one brigade had the luxury of a circuit hooked up to a generator at the local hospital to enable its siren to sound as usual, while another planned to ring the town’s old hand bell and at the same time run the fire engines out of the station and sound the appliances’ siren. Anything to get the crews to the station while the electricity crisis continued!
I left Hamilton in 1974 on transfer to Wellington… to the NZBC’s Parliamentary Bureau.
Firsts #1. Sheepskins and the Snorkel
The Sheepskin Rug Shop in Penrose caught fire in November 1971 and, as might be expected, the combination of wool, tanned hides and lanolin fuelled the flames which quickly developed to warrant a 3rd Alarm response. I was otherwise engaged on another news item when this went down, though I did get to do a follow-up story for the mid-evening TV bulletin and for radio. The major fire called for all available appliances to respond from Pitt Street Headquarters, emptying out the whole station and leaving, as was the procedure, one senior officer stationed in the Control-room to oversee operations from there. On this occasion, as it happened, there was one appliance left in the yard at the rear of the fire station, the brand new Snorkel aerial platform, not yet commissioned. Fire crews had been familiarising themselves with this very different appliance (the first aerial platform, automatic transmission) when they were summoned to the Sheepskin Rug Shop and had left it parked in the yard just where they abandoned it to respond to the big blaze. Barry Radovan (later Assistant Fire Commander) was the officer rostered to control-room supervision that day and was startled to hear a radio message from the fireground, “Send the Snorkel”. It should have been expected, perhaps, because Deputy Chief Fire Officer Allan Bruce was in charge of the fire and was the champion of the aerial platform, having seen its value overseas during a study tour which included a visit to the Snorkel Company’s factory.
Radovan was faced with a dilemma. The Deputy had called for the Snorkel so there was no doubt that, though not yet commissioned, it must be despatched. But there was no one left on station to drive it to the call. The 3rd Alarm had soaked up most of the inner-suburban resources so it was going to take some time to get a distant appliance, with its crew, into the city, even using lights and sirens, to uplift the Snorkel… which no one had driven, anyway. Messages from the fireground pointed to a deteriorating situation. Barry Radovan decided that he himself would have to drive the Snorkel to the call. Once in the driver’s seat he gingerly ran the appliance backwards and forwards in the yard to get the feel of it. Just imagine the repercussions if the appliance was damaged on its very first outing! Satisfied he could more or less handle the vehicle, Barry then swung it out into Pitt Street and along Karangahape Road towards the motorway, and Penrose, where, unmistakeably, he could soon see his destination: the huge pall of black smoke.
Meantime on the fireground Deputy Chief Allan Bruce started arranging additional feeder hose lines so that as soon as the Snorkel arrived they could be hooked up, providing additional water for fire-fighting jets which could then be established above and around the burning building. He also organised all the fire hoses in Rockfield Road to be dragged to the side to allow the Snorkel access right up to the blazing Sheepskin Rug Shop. Radio messages from the fireground were relayed to the Snorkel, advising its best approach and the fact that a clear pathway had been prepared. But these messages went unanswered despite repeated attempts to contact Radovan in the Snorkel. As it happened he could hear them so he was able to perfectly position the appliance, as per Allan Bruce’s plans, to get to work and provide a prime pump for jets that would quell the big blaze. Although only vaguely familiar with the appliance’s aerial platform operations and waterway equipment, fire-fighters established several high pressure jets on the flames and, as Allan Bruce later said, the fire brigade began to get the upper hand. But he would say that, wouldn’t he? It was his baby and the Fire Board had bought it largely on his recommendation after he saw Snorkels in action overseas. The fire, eventually, was doused: it took the Snorkel, 9 pumping appliances and 14 hose-lines to do so (12 low pressure deliveries and 2 high pressure deliveries).
Early evening, I am Fire Headquarters, seeking additional information about the Sheepskin Rug Factory fire for follow-up news bulletins, and there in the Officers’ Mess I hit the jackpot. It was a social gathering of the officers who had been involved at the fire, fighting it all over again, as so often happened. (This is known to occur sometimes months or even years after “a big one” is recalled!). The heat, rapid fire spread and exposure to surrounding buildings at the Sheepskin factory were all topics of the conversation. I was just about to ask Barry Radovan about the Snorkel. It was the first time this type of appliance had been used in New Zealand, and, notably used “in anger” before being commissioned. It was a novel situation and would form part of my updated news items. Just then Deputy Allan Bruce came along, was invited in the Mess, and after congratulating everyone for a difficult job well done, he zeroed in on Barry Radovan who must be seen as the hero of the piece. Although he had never so much as touched the appliance before, he had driven the Snorkel, delivering it safely to the blaze and in good time, an appliance not yet commissioned, the most expensive fire engine in the land, well worthy of the limelight in its starring role… and putting out the fire. But rather than such a positive outcome, conversation turned a bit sour…
“How did the trip go?” asked Allan Bruce.
“Not bad” replied Barry Radovan, “until I got to Grafton Bridge to access the motorway”. (The nearest on-ramp to the Southern Motorway, under construction, was at that time off Grafton Road, so taking Grafton Bridge was the logical route).
Allan Bruce’s demeanour changed instantly. “Grafton Bridge”, he growled, “not Grafton Bridge, don’t tell me you went over Grafton Bridge, the only stretch of road the Snorkel can’t use because it’s too heavy, over-weight. We are not allowed to use Grafton Bridge! This could lead to trouble!”
Barry, tried to minimise the matter. “Don’t worry, Deputy, it was only a minor traffic jam, a traffic cop on a motorbike soon had it sorted and I was on my way again”
“Well” said Allan, semi-exploding “this will be trouble!” At this moment he chose to ignore the fact that Barry had saved the day. “That traffic cop will know the Snorkel shouldn’t be using Grafton Bridge… if he reports that to the City Council there’ll be a lot of explaining to do. We have got off on the wrong foot with the Snorkel!”
A somewhat sheepish Radovan didn’t know what was coming next. His colleagues were silent.
“By the way”, Allan Bruce asked, “what speed did you get up to on the motorway?”
At this stage of the conversation Barry Radovan thought discretion was the better part of valour. “Oh, I was pushing it along a bit,” was all he would say.
“Yeah, I bet you did” said Bruce, a touch dismissive. “Oh, and why didn’t you reply to all the radio messages we were sending you?”
It was an easy answer, and one that even Allan Bruce couldn’t argue with. The Snorkel had not been designed for one-person operation, so the radio had been installed in front of the officer’s seat, the layout of the cab assuming that the appliance would be fully crewed for all turnouts. The radio and its microphone was, thus, on the other side of the cab, out of reach of the driver. All appliance radios were centrally-mounted after that, easily accessible from both the officer’s and driver’s seat.
So it was a bitter-sweet day for Barry Radovan, but in hindsight even Allan Bruce had to admire Barry’s initiative and daring … and, after all, the Snorkel – Allan Bruce’s pride and joy – had saved the day, thanks to Barry! Believe it or not, the Snorkel had been officially delivered to the Brigade just the day before during a function at Mt Wellington Station, a ceremony I covered for TV News showing off the new appliance’s finer points. So within 24 hours it had proved its worth!
Firsts #2. High Pressure Delivery
I can’t give a date for this “first” but it was at Otahuhu, a fish shop on fire just off the main street. Most of the action was all over by the time I arrived, and without a cameraman immediately available it was obvious there weren’t going to be any action shots for TV. I parked my car rather hap-hazardly in the closed-off section of the street and made my way towards the smoking fish shop to find the officer in charge, who I knew from messages on the radio was Senior Station Officer Norm Golding from the local Otahuhu Fire Station. Just as I was about to engage in conversation with Norm a traffic cop, who had been walking up the road behind me, interrupted to say my car was in the way and I would have to move it, immediately, otherwise I would get a ticket. “Move it – In case another fire engine has to access the street” he said. Norm Golding leapt to my defence. “Now, look Ernie (Ernest Pinches, Otahuhu Borough Council Traffic Officer) let me introduce you to Ric Carlyon and if anyone knows about any more appliances coming here, he will. He has a fire radio and most probably knows about these things before I do… so he’ll move his car long before any more appliances turn up here”. Ernie backed off. In fact, Norm was busting to show me something and now that the matter of my parking and the traffic cop had been sidelined, Norm could get on with it. “Look, Ric” he said excitedly, “what we had here was a fish and chip shop well involved when we pulled up. We have knocked it, and very quickly, very thoroughly. Do you notice anything different?”
Well, I looked at the shop, I looked at the fire engine, its feeder still connected to the hydrant, I watched crews exiting the building and scanned the premises for anything unusual. I know I was going to let down Norm Golding when after a while I had to say “no, I can’t see anything different or of note”.
“Ric”, he said, “where’s the low pressure delivery? You can’t see one, right? That’s because there is no low pressure delivery. We knocked the fire using just 2 high pressure guns and it was so successful. It’s a first – no one else has dared not establish, and use, a low pressure delivery for a structure fire, but in theory you can kill this type of fire with these new high pressure guns and that’s what we’ve done. I haven’t heard of anyone in the Brigade using just the high pressure side of the pump. You’ve seen a first here. I thought we’d try it, and now we know it works”.
Norm was right and I wrote a piece for radio news about the revolutionary new fire-fighting medium, high pressure deliveries, which believe it or not, I explained in the item, bombard the flames with oxygen, (which usually feeds the fire), but in this case, in lay terms, the oxygen’s encased in millions of tiny bubbles which cools the fire, starves it of free oxygen and acts as an extinguishing agent. The flames go out and because not so much water is used in fire-fighting, water and steam damage is minimal adjacent to the actual fire.
Firsts #3. An Axe in the Hand…
Station Officer (Later Divisional Officer) Noel Glen was a devoted to his hobby, boating on Auckland harbour, and this interest rubbed off in his professional life, providing fire protection on Auckland Harbour and in the Hauraki Gulf. He advocated fire boats, and for a time Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board had one or two in its fleet. As Station Officer at Parnell Station he was closest to the water and did much of the fire brigade liaison with waterfront police (which had a 24/7 launch available), the harbour board (all its tugs had fire-fighting capability and coastguard (provided craft to transport firemen and portable pumps to fires in the Gulf).
Noel Glen’s first was his quick-thinking actions when fire broke out on a 10 meter launch anchored in the bay 50 meters off the seaward side of Tamaki Drive near Ngapipi Road. Fortunately, just as Noel Glen and his crew were arriving on the scene a man was about to push off from the boat sheds in a small dinghy. Noel commandeered the craft, relieving the surprised “skipper” of his command, and Noel and a fireman immediately rowed out to the burning launch. No portable pump… no nothing it seemed, until Noel pulled out his trusty old fireman’s hatchet and on the leeward side of the craft punched a couple of neat holes in the hull just below the waterline. The boat sank: the fire was extinguished as it went down. In a follow-up with the launch’s owners, I found they were delighted with Noel’s answer to the problem. Their launch had already been salvaged and it was thought that the engine, after drying out, would again be serviceable and, of course, the holes along the port side would have to repaired.
Firsts #4. Wheeled Escape
The first (and only) time I saw a wheeled escape in action was at a fire in the mid 1960’s above shops in Karangahape Road, just along from Pitt Street near the East Street intersection, adjacent to the Newton Post Office. The blaze was at the rear of the shops but was threatening to get into first floor accommodation. Fire-fighters unhooked the wheeled escape from the Dennis F12 appliance, manoeuvred it into the roadway and pitched it against the shop’s veranda, ready to effect rescues if necessary, or, as transpired, to take hose-lines aloft, feed them through windows (which also acted as fire escapes) and use them to check fire-spread. Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board acquired two wheeled escapes as part of its replacement programme in the early/mid 1950s when two powerful Dennis F12 fire engines were purchased.
The 18 meter (50 feet) wheeled escape is, in fact, a two-section telescopic wooden ladder mounted on large wheels… they look like old-fashioned wooden spoked cart wheels with steel “tyres”… and this unit hooks into brackets, carried to the fireground on the rear of the appliance. Once at the fire an ingenuous lowering device enables firemen to quickly let down and deploy the ladder unit, the big wheels designed to facilitate manoeuvrability. Even so, it’s a two-man task to carefully balance the ladder, roll it into place, chock the wheels and raise the ladder ready for use. In his book “United to Protect” Grant Gillon describes the very first drill using the new wheeled escape. It was an early morning exercise in downtown Lorne Street, still dark. The ladder was being manhandled into position for mock rescues when the top of the ladder tangled with overhead telephone wires, bringing them down.
And that was not the only training session with a wheeled escape that went wrong. A crew, under strict instruction, was exercising with one of the ladders in the yard behind Central Station one morning when the ladder somehow got away from its handlers. It rolled a short distance and then capsized, crashing on to a nearby parked car which was later described as being the shape of a bird-bath. Closer inspection revealed the car was, in fact, extensively damaged and belonged to Fire Board Secretary, Rex Levis.
This accident came up 40 years later at reunion of firemen from the days of the Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board. The former Deputy Chief Fire Officer, Allan Bruce, observed to several hundred attending the reunion dinner that at the time of the episode no one had owned-up to take responsibility for the ladder capsizing and the resulting damage.
“Now, some 40 years later”, said Allan Bruce, “someone in the room must have answers and perhaps the mystery can be cleared up tonight. After all that time someone owes it to me to come clean.”
After a minute or two all was revealed when Owen Fausett said he would take the rap because he was in charge of the wheeled escape when it got out of control. Putting on mock anger and pointing at Owen, Allan Bruce said “Right, Fireman Fausett, I’ll see you in my office in the morning at nine o clock sharp, and don’t you be late!”
The room erupted in laughter and applause – all present appreciating Allan imitating his very own style of discipline from “the old days”. And at the same time acknowledgement that, although many of those attending the reunion knew all along who was responsible, it was being made “public” for the first time.
Neither Rex Levis’ car nor the wheeled escape survived the accident.
Firsts # 5 Emergency Tender
For many years Auckland fire engines, pumping appliances, were responding to motor accidents to assist best they could at the scene, mainly supporting St John Ambulance personnel. In 1967 Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board decided to convert a Dennis F8 appliance to an Emergency Tender (ET) to carry extra resources: giant floodlights on the roof, a Tirfor winch, rescue lines, hand-tools like jacks, crow bars and perhaps a Halligan bar which was an American invention: an all-purpose break-and-enter tool combining a pick, an adze and an axe.
Auckland’s first Emergency Tender, a converted Dennis F8
Auckland Fire Brigade Centenary, Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board
There was also a metal-cutting circular saw and a meter-long tool, (a local invention I think), that emulated a kitchen can opener, but on a giant scale, enabling it to cut into car bodies. An enhanced first aid kit was added. Auckland fire brigade thus got into the rescue and extrication business with its first own ET. For a time the F8 often worked alongside St John’s Landrover rescue unit which had been built about the same time as the F8 was being converted.
While neither agency had legislative direction, nor authority, to effect rescues, their attendance was welcomed, rescuing trapped patients and, undoubtedly, saving lives. No one else was… and police discouraged an earlier offer from tow wagon companies when they said that they could gear up to attend accidents and effect rescues. The fire brigade was eventually left with the task in Auckland when, a year or two later, St John managers concluded that they should concentrate on ambulance services, leaving rescue work to fire-fighters with their ET. (Fire services inherited the St John Landrover, later converted to a Command Unit).
There was another first in this part of the brigade business when in August 1971 Auckland commissioned its first purpose-built ET, an International ACCO 1820, with the call-sign F17.
It responded to all calls involving “special (non-fire) services”, by now extended somewhat, from rescues at car accidents to any situation with potential for rescue and/or life-saving and to all major fires. The Jaws of Life, developed by the Hurst Company for rescues from racing cars, were by now well proven by overseas fire and rescue squads, and a set was added to F17 along with a generator, air bags and other stabilising tools.
The lighting capability was enhanced: power-to-weight ratio of generators had greatly improved. By 1973 the Fire Service Council accepted that brigades had, by default, taken over the task of rescue and extrication services at motor accidents and distributed technical advice, supplied recommended equipment and added appropriate training to its syllabus. Then, in the repeal of fire services in 2017, the law finally caught up: there was legislative authority for firefighters to attend non-fire emergencies, and what’s more they were afforded immunity from prosecution while performing such tasks.
Department Store Fires
The most unlucky department store as far as fire goes must have been the Farmers Trading Company in downtown, Auckland.
Prior to my time reporting for radio and TV, in May 1963 Farmers had a massive blaze in their bulk store situated behind the main department store on the corner of Nelson and Fanshaw Streets.
It began in the basement but spread to upper floors: main fire-fighting took 20 hours and it was several days before the “all clear” could be given. 100 firemen fought the blaze: 32 were taken to hospital. An estimated 3 million gallons of water was used during the fire-fight, played on fire via 20 low pressure deliveries.
The department store itself in Hobson Street caught fire in the late 1960’s, a blaze on the ground floor which caused fire and water damage to stock. Then in 1978 there was a bigger fire on an upper floor fought initially by sprinklers, later by fire-fighters using many hose-lines – the water caused problems throughout the store. Fire Police used shade cloth from the gardening department and tents from the outdoors/camping department to wrap computer and cash register terminals, trying to minimise water damage.
In 1982 there was a call to the store at day-break … to a fire which warranted a 4th Alarm response. Flames were confined to parts of the building on two floors but, again, there was much heat, smoke and water damage: Farmers had Auckland’s biggest fire sale within days of blaze which, it was reckoned, did $3 million worth of damage.
All these fires had been after hours, posing no risk to either staff or shoppers but this changed in the 1990s when Farmers experienced a spate of fires in their department store during trading hours. The fires, fortunately, were either extinguished by sprinklers or discovered and reported before they took hold. The fact that many had been lit in places not usually accessible to shoppers indicated a staff member might be responsible. Subsequently one of the store’s staff electricians was arrested and charged with arson – a series of fires deliberately lit within Farmers.
The Farmers Company was also a big loser when in 1986 fire destroyed the shopping mall at Otara Town Centre: their extensive store was a total loss. And in 1988 Farmers suffered further damage when the warehouse and despatch department at the rear of the main store, fronting Nelson Street, caught fire: a further 4th Alarm response. This large department store was converted to the Heritage Hotel.
In 1979 there was a 4th Alarm fire in Rendell’s department Store, Newton, which spread to adjacent premises. Rendells had been retailers on Karangahape Road since 1882.
The store was gutted and it was the beginning of the end of this well-known, pioneer, retailer who had traded in Newton for so long: the building was refurbished and at first remained as Rendell’s but was later converted to multiple occupancies: shops and offices. The name remains in the Italianate façade.
Not so much for the buildings themselves, but the anguish in a school fire is for two things… first, the spirit of the institution is somehow broken when classrooms are destroyed or damaged and , second, loss of teaching resources and aids, often built up over many years and not easily replaced.
Most school fires have been deliberate, sad to say, and suspicious fires in pre-school, primary, intermediate and secondary schools continue to this day.
In some instances, like at Papatoetoe, there was no doubt about motive: perpetrators had scrawled their venom about teachers on blackboards in most of the rooms, probably expecting all to be consumed in the flames of the fires they planned to set. At other schools smashed windows, forced doors and graffiti spelled out a trail of destruction before putting a match to the place.
Rutherford High School at Te Atatu had several large fires over the years, notably 1975, 1983 and 1993, each interrupting schooling and development of the facility at a time when the roll was burgeoning. Arsonists were arrested for several of the fires.
Western Springs College has had a couple of serious fires, the first when it was known as Seddon Technical College, which was a notable incident because the Auckland Fire Police Unit was accused by an executive fire officer that it had misjudged the call, responding insufficient resource, and then when it did, he claimed that members were very late arriving on the scene. The officer was very much mistaken on both counts, and, when matters were taken up with him after the fire, easily proven wrong. What he did not know was that the first alarm had been monitored by all the Unit’s members who were gathered at their regular monthly meeting at Fire Headquarters, Pitt Street. Some members were immediately excused from the meeting and despatched to the call. Then the meeting was hastily abandoned and all members went to the call a few minutes later when a greater alarm was transmitted. Members had only a few kilometres to travel from Pitt Street down the motorway to Western Springs to the call: so they were promptly on the fireground. It was thus later easily proven that almost the entire membership turned out and arrived much more quickly than having travelled from their homes, as would normally be the case! I drew up a schedule of the times and the numbers responding, entered it into the computer and printed it. The resulting data log looked very official and I was pleased to hand it to the complaining officer. He withdrew his complaint without further comment. Certainly, there was no apology.
To divert from school fires… one afternoon this same officer saw 3 Fire Police arriving at the scene of a house fire in Macmurray Road, Remuera. I was among them and we noted that the fire hydrant was on the other side of the road to the house on fire. We knew our first duty was to close the road or set up hose-ramps to protect the hose-line crossing the road which was feeding water to the fire engine. The rule was that vehicles did not drive over hose-lines: they were easily damaged and, of course, any punctures, cuts or tears would reduce vital water supplies needed for fire-fighting. We found the officer-we-loved-to-hate was in charge and, once kitted out, walked up the street towards him. But, obviously used to dealing with dogs, he whistled out to us to get our attention and, having done so, immediately dismissed us, signalling that they were not wanted. I had often seen sheep-dog trials in Central Otago and it was plain to me he would have been better suited addressing working dogs than trying to liaise with volunteers offering to assist. Anyway, Fire Police having been abruptly stood down in this way without even reaching the fire or exchanging one word, we turned on our heels to go back down the road to our cars. Within seconds there was a loud shout from the pump operator beside the fire appliance, but it was too late. A low-slung mini car had driven straight up and over the unprotected hose-line and a sharp piece of metal on the car’s underside must have pierced the hose. The resulting gusher was ten times better than Mission Bay fountain and five times as high. “Just keep walking!” I said under my breath to my 2 colleagues, “don’t turn around or glance back”. We returned to our cars, took off our uniforms and hid behind one of the cars. Once in private, we had a jolly good laugh at the expense of the crass, undisciplined Officer. We doubled with laughter when, looking back, we saw efforts to control the geyser. We went on our separate ways in very good humour!
I made a mental note never to respond to calls where this officer was in charge. The decision was against my better judgement, I never told anyone about it, just made myself unavailable for those calls and, as a result missed out attending one or two major and interesting incidents. The officer was later promoted to another region and I didn’t have to worry anymore. I really felt for the volunteers he would have in his control… his public relations were suspect, his human relations weren’t much better.
This was probably the biggest of the school fires. Early one evening in 1990 a range of buildings, including classrooms, the hall and the gymnasium caught alight. Before the flames could be stopped by the fire service, which responded with a 5th Alarm, further buildings were engulfed with flames. A column of smoke could be seen from most parts of Auckland. During the fire many calls were received on the 111 emergency phone line to multiple house-fires in Avondale. Each had to be investigated… but they all turned out to be the bright orange flames of burning buildings at the College reflected in windows of houses, some at least a kilometre away from the school. Damage was estimated at $5 million: with a quarter of the school’s buildings destroyed, opportunity was taken to virtually rebuild the place. The cause was put down to an electrical fault in the hall.
Fires in churches, and church halls, generally get a good start on fire-fighters because of their high roof: there is plenty of air, containing that food for fire: oxygen. The older ones are tinder-dry and constructed of timber, notably Kauri, adding to rapid combustion.
In 1998 a church hall high on the ridge at Coates Avenue, Orakei, was one of the most spectacular of these blazes, seen from many vantage points across Auckland. A hall in New Lynn of similar construction, very high roofline without a ceiling, was also a major fire.
But probably the saddest and most notable of these in my time was the hundred-year-old All Saints Church hall in Ponsonby which was consumed by fire on 2nd December 1969. I was on duty in NZBC’s radio and TV newsroom that night when news came in of a massive fire in Ponsonby Road. I soon ascertained the old hall was on fire, devastating to the locals who regarded it as an historic treasure. Flames were likely to spread to other adjacent buildings. 8 fire appliances were sent to deal with the blaze but I could not go. There was another, concurrent, item underway that night and I was forced to staff the newsroom, keeping abreast of both story-lines. While All Saints Hall was burning down, police were figuring out how best to pursue a light plane that was flying at very low levels and performing aerobatics over Greater Auckland, frightening residents. Many callers reported that they were certain the plane was going to crash into suburbia. The daring pilot eventually landed his plane safely at Ardmore aerodrome and police arrested him, charging him with offences under Civil Aviation law.
All Saints’ hall was gutted. A firefighter was hurt at the blaze: his permanent injuries caused him to leave the brigade prematurely.
Arson is often used, psychologists tell us, as a means of destroying, or trying to destroy, property belonging to those whom they don’t like or with whom there’s a difference of opinion.
Setting fire to something means that it will be destroyed – provided flames take hold and fire-fighters are not so quickly on the job. What the protestors don’t count on is that the fire they set may not get established or that the fire brigade will make a good save of the property… in either case the object of the fiery protest is lost.
In the mid-1960s the Auckland Rugby Union’s offices in Albert Street, Auckland City, were fire-bombed. This was a major fire. It was a case of total destruction within the premises caused by a petrol bomb (Molotov cocktail) probably thrown from the street through a window, those responsible protesting about what they called “Racist Rugby Tours” of South Africa in the apartheid era. Protestors believed the Rugby Union, in organising and participating in matches against apartheid regimes, condoned racist policies.
Although the Rugby Union relocated offices after the fire , the argument about All Blacks touring South Africa and Springboks coming here, was not going away and continued, sometimes vehemently and violently for more than 20 years until South Africa officially abandoned apartheid policies.
I was alerted to the blaze, woken from sleep by the Fire Brigade control-room staff who notified the media of serious events. I immediately went into the city to have a look at the fire and, fire-fighting complete, was invited into the building for an up-front look. Water from fire-fighting, ankle deep, was beginning to drain. Looking down, I realised I had to avoid the broken glass underfoot. Suspicious, I alerted the officer in charge to my find and this led, later, to a reconstruction of a bottle probably used to start an accelerated fire. Just about that time one of the Rugby Union executives, Ron Don, arrived on the scene. In front of several fire-fighters he said to me “Oh, yes, you’d know all about this. Those who do this sort of thing always alert you people in TV before they strike”. I took a note of his exact words and those present when he made the comment and then asked him to comment, for publication, about the fire. He had nothing more to contribute. I completed my look-around and walked the 20 yards to the 1ZB building, which housed the newsroom, to file my report. I wanted to sue Ron Don for what he had said in front of others: he had implied that I had known about the firebombing in advance, yet not told the police so they might catch the protestors in the act and prevent the destruction of the Union’s offices. NZBC executives would not back me in the prosecution.
Supporting similar anti-rugby tour sentiments the grandstand at Papakura’s Rugby Park was mostly destroyed in a spectacular night-time fire. A second, much more recent fire, while considered arson, was not thought linked to the same protest agenda.
In the 1970s and 80s the topic of abortion was being fiercely debated in New Zealand. The 75 year old legislation was reformed. But divide opinion surfaced in 1984 when protestors set fire to the abortion clinic in Ranfurly Road, Epsom, run by the Auckland Medical Aid Centre. It was a second alarm fire, and while sufficient damage was caused to close the premises temporarily, they soon re-opened for business and subsequently transferred to larger facilities in Mt Eden.
There was an explosion followed by a major fire in downtown shops and offices in Auckland in June 1972, the result of ongoing protests against French nuclear explosions in the atmosphere above the Pacific island of Mururoa. The premises in Commerce Street housed the local headquarters for the French airline, UTA, and it was obvious to fire-fighters, right from the start, that considerable quantities of petrol or similar accelerant had been used.
The building quickly became a crime scene: two persons were subsequently charged with arson.
Protest by Terrorists
Which leads to another protest resulting in fire, but this one started with an explosion. It’s also connected with the same controversy, the French Government’s decision to test nuclear devices in the atmosphere in the South Pacific – above Mururoa atoll and, later, in the coral reef beneath the atoll.
But this time it was a protest by the French Government against international campaigners and lobbyists, Green Peace, who were preparing their flagship “Rainbow Warrior” to go on a voyage to the test zone off Mururoa Atoll in protest against all nuclear testing. French government agents had secretly entered New Zealand and on the night of July 10th 1985, placed limpet bombs on the hull of the “Rainbow Warrior” berthed alongside the wharf on Auckland’s waterfront, its crew preparing for the protest voyage. The resulting explosions and fire killed a Greenpeace photographer on board and ripped a big hole in the side of the ship that you could drive a car through. It was below the waterline causing the ship to sink at the berth within minutes of the second and final bomb. The fire on board was short-lived, never taking hold.
The wharf was cordoned by police soon after the explosions – the event quickly being labelled “a terrorist attack”. Fernando Pereira died when he apparently went back on board between the two blasts (they were 7 minutes apart) and within hours of the sinking divers who inspected damage reported that the explosion happened from the outside, evidence the steel hull had been ripped apart by powerful explosive charges, probably limpet mines or similar.
Little did I know at the time, just before midnight, when I was alerted to “an explosion and fire on the yacht Rainbow Warrior” (which is how it was described by the fire brigade control-room) that I was attending an act of sabotage which was to have widespread international ramifications once the involvement of the French Secret Services was proven and 2 of the agents were unmasked and arrested in New Zealand. The other agents, at least 4, escaped. The 2 arrested both admitted charges of manslaughter, appeared in court and they were subsequently convicted and each sentenced to 10 years’ jail.
On the night, I prised a reluctant TV cameraman out of bed, persuading him to go to the wharf to get footage of the immediate aftermath. No one quite realised what was behind the explosion and sinking, though many of us suspected that somehow the damage was in protest at Greenpeace’s plans to sail to Mururoa to campaign against France’s continuing nuclear testing in the Pacific.
The attack was newsworthy for years: many elements of the bombing and aftermath tested New Zealand’s relationship with France, there was legal wrangling about laying criminal charges and questions of jurisdiction, so it was arranged that the pair’s jail sentence would be served off-shore. Greenpeace received compensation from the French, in 2005 one of the French agents said Pereira’s death still weighed on his conscience while a year later another agent spoke out, claiming he had set the bombs. The scandal eventually claimed the political career of France’s Defence Minister at the time of the bombing, Mr Charles Hernu, along with the resignation of the head of the Secret Service. It was also revealed that President Francois Mitterrand, himself, had approved “Operation Satanique” as the terrorist plot was known.
The French, undeterred, continued their nuclear testing at Mururoa, albeit underground, until 1996 when they ceased – 40 years after the first of the programme’s controversial blasts. The “Rainbow Warrior” was irreparably damaged in the bombing and was scuttled in 1987 in Matauri Bay, off the East Coast of the North Island, as a dive wreck and fish sanctuary.
The Air New Zealand DC8 passenger airliner that crashed on the main runway at Auckland International Airport on July 4 1966 was one of the memorable news events I witnessed. I was at the airport at the time and watched as the plane complete several touch-and-go training landings and takeoffs, then was looking out at the aircraft while it was passing the terminal building on another similar manoeuvre. The DC8 began to lift but appeared to come to standstill in the air just after takeoff, merely metres off the runway. It plummeted to the concrete, splitting up and skidding in all directions. I quickly assured myself that it was the same plane that had been doing touch-and-go passes and that there would be just the flight crew on board. There was smoke, and fire broke out in the fuselage tackled by the airport’s fire/crash crews, backed up by appliances from the Auckland fire brigade.
But it was the rescues that day that became legendary, particularly by Air New Zealand’s industrial nurse who, joining fire-fighters right inside the flight deck, treated those air crew on the flight deck who were badly injured and had to await rescue.
Two crew-members were killed.
My frustration, expanded elsewhere in these recollections, was that the NZBC would not mention the crash on radio or TV bulletins “until the names of all casualties were available for broadcast”. This misguided restriction wrecked the integrity of NZBC News: listeners could no longer depend on it for timely and reliable broadcast of happening events. It was a subjective editorial decision which stymied news on radio and TV, unpardonably giving first publication of the story to the opposition, “The Auckland Star” newspaper, which rushed a special late afternoon edition on the streets. Radio, believe it or not, had been well and truly scooped notwithstanding that its own reporter had witnessed the tragedy and was on the phone to the newsroom offering voice reports within seconds of its occurrence!
Much later, in February 1979, when I was with TV2 news an Air New Zealand Fokker Friendship crashed into Manukau Harbour on the approaches to Auckland Airport whilst completing a non-commercial flight from Gisborne. There was no fire, but fire services found rescues and recovery quite tricky, out on the mud banks when the tide receded, then operations were interrupted when it came in again. A pilot and a ground engineer died in the crash.
On Christmas Eve, 1970, fire-fighters were tasked with cutting the victims from the wreckage of a Grumman Widgeon seaplane belonging to Tourist Air Travel, based at Mechanics Bay on Auckland’s waterfront. Sadly, NZBC News, made the news that day because the plane was taking a TV news crew to get coverage of a launch on fire in the Hauraki Gulf. During filming manoeuvres near Browns Island the plane crashed into the sea killing all 4 on board… the pilot (Roger Poole) and 3 of my close colleagues, the reporter (Steven With), cameraman (Wayne Stephens) and sound technician (David Grant). The plane was salvaged, hoisted on board a barge and taken to Auckland wharves where fire-fighters cut their way through the twisted fuselage and released the victims.
In latter days fire-fighters, along with Fire Police, have been called to light aircraft which crash-landed in the mangroves on Hobson Bay at the foot of Brighton Road, Parnell, to a parachutists’ plane that force-landed between the grapes in a vineyard at Kumeu, to a helicopter that crashed on the landing pad at Mechanics Bay, to a Cessna that didn’t quite make it to the end of the runway at North Shore airport landing awkwardly in a paddock, and to a vintage Vampire jet-fighter which veered off the runway at Ardmore, ploughing into gardens and farmland, narrowly missing a house.
I have continued my interest in all topics connected with fire. In 2019 I remain a member of Auckland Operational Support (the renamed/revamped Fire Police) and had been on the Executive of the Auckland Districts Fire Brigades’ Sub-Association for many years until it disbanded in 2017. I play a minor administrative role with the UFBA. And I still own a vintage 1930 Dennis fire engine, about which there’s more on Dispatches.