Fire Police / Operational Support

This volunteer group in Auckland is celebrating its 90th anniversary today, 22nd June 2023. It was founded as the Auckland Metropolitan Volunteer Fire Police Corps at a meeting held in the old Pitt Street fire station in 1933. The organisation has thrived ever since. (There was a name change to Operational Support in 2010).

Just 12 members enrolled on the founding night, their duties were to support firefighters and police at major fires:  their only uniform/insignia was an arm band.

Fire Police in Auckland was first mooted in 1874 by Inspector Thomas Broham of the Armed Constabulary. The City Council had asked him to provide better policing and crowd control at fires,  “… to facilitate the work of firefighters”.

                                                                                          Inspector Broham

Inspector Broham suggested, among other remedies, that a Fire Police Corps might help… a group of volunteers sworn-in as constables who would attend major fires to help maintain law and order. (Christchurch had established Fire Police in 1867).

In Auckland, Mr. Broham’s suggestion fell on deaf ears, and it wasn’t until some 60 years later that the Auckland Metropolitan Volunteer Fire Police Corps was established. This move followed a major fire in 1931 at the intersection of Hobson and Victoria Streets which destroyed a range of commercial buildings.

The fire in downtown Auckland, 1931

The glow and smoke attracted an estimated 10,000 onlookers, some of whom took advantage of the situation and began looting and pilfering goods from the damaged premises. Order was restored only when a party of Marines arrived from Devonport Naval Base and, with bayonets fixed, dispersed the crowd.

The Corps was formed directly as the result of this episode when, on June 22nd 1933, 12 men, most former firefighters, were enrolled and sworn-in. Captain Harry Jane was elected Officer-In-Charge at the next meeting – and the organisation was up and running under the auspices of the Fire Board, sponsored by Superintendent W. Wilson. The first major outbreak they attended was early in 1935 when 11 members assisted at an all-consuming blaze in Woolworth’s Department Store, Queen Street, City. At that time armbands were the only Fire Police “uniform”.

No uniform, insignia or equipment, only an armband

It’s safe to say that Fire Police attended every major fire and emergency over the years, some members, early-on, responding by tramcar, bus or taxi when private cars weren’t affordable… and for years they were advised when their services were required by broadcasts over radio station 1ZB.

It was not until 1943 that they received a full uniform, and – at about the same time – they accepted rostered duties as fire safety officers at places of entertainment such as theatres, halls and at the circus, which was always a popular annual duty. These tasks were assigned because so many men had enlisted for active wartime duty that there were manpower shortages. For the same reason some members switched to firefighter’s duties during the war, staying overnight on fire stations, available to respond, while retaining their day-jobs.

Post-war the Corps suffered a few setbacks and although members were still turning out to calls, the organisation languished and it was not until 1959 that new rules, additional duties, a training programme and improved uniform sparked new life in the organisation. In 1966 there was a major extension to the Corp’s area of operations when outlying districts, the likes of Western suburbs, Papakura, Howick and Manukau came under the Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board. Fire Police were responding to a much-enlarged territory.

In 1976 the New Zealand Fire Service Commission took over from Fire Boards: there was an assurance that the Auckland Corps would continue, and, indeed it did, and flourished – with additional duties such as allocation of the mobile canteen, the first vehicle the team was entrusted with.

Bedford mobile canteen

Fire Police were also much better served with personal pagers, radios, appropriate uniform, revised training regimes… and an increase in establishment to serve an ever-increasing metropolis.

The name “Fire Police” disappeared from the fire service landscape in 2010 when it was changed to “Operational Support”, by which time the Officer-In-Charge of the Auckland unit enjoyed the rank of Chief Fire Officer and there was an establishment of 60 members. To reflect the continuiing volunteering spirit the organisation took on the alternative name “Auckland Volunteer Fire Brigade”. Since 2017 it has been part of Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) and retains its lead as the biggest and busiest volunteer entity in New Zealand. It now has allocated 4 vehicles and 2 trailers to carry out its support duties which include traffic management, lighting, salvage, refreshments and rehabilitation services. It operates 24×7 providing support to firefighters from some 65 stations across Greater Auckland and, unlike the early days, it is fully resourced and financed. The Brigade maintains and operates its own radio network.

Among those offering congratulations on the brigade’s 90th birthday was Fire and Emergency New Zealand’s District Manager, Vaughan Mackereth. “It’s a milestone to be celebrated by a brigade which has assisted firefighters, emergency services and the community since 1933. And as if to remind everyone of the valued services provided, the special birthday occurs the same week as a fourth alarm fire in Papakura, where once again members carried out a range of duties to support and benefit firefighters”.

Major blaze at Papakura car-wrecker’s yard

Vaughan Mackereth continues – “The brigade has kept up with the changes over the decades and  although the duties, uniform, vehicles and funding have all changed over the years, members from across Tāmaki Makaurau continue to willingly serve their brigade as volunteers… just as strongly now as those 12 founding members 90 years ago.”

At the Brigade’s 90th Annual General Meeting the Chief Fire Officer, Glenn Teal, reflected that Fire Police, in their  first year of operations, attended but a handful of calls and nothing major, whereas in our milestone year 2022-23 members responded to 562 calls, more than a dozen Greater Alarms and multiple incidents caused by the effects of weather. He noted that Gen Y and Gen X members had willingly responded to his call to get more involved in Brigade activities and administration, and that augers well for the future.

Following the AGM member Ric Carlyon gave a quick potted-history of the Fire Police and Operational Support and Patron, David Neil, congratulated the brigade on its achievements saying its survival (when so many other Auckland volunteer fire brigades faded away) was due to enlightened leadership over the decades, the willingness to adapt to changing times and members’ dedication to providing community service as volunteers.

A celebratory supper followed, the focus of which was a specially decorated 90th “birthday” cake.

Cutting the cake – joint effort by former and present senior Officers

It was cut as a combined effort by former and present brigade executives, from left, present Deputy Chief Fire Officer, Ross Bay: former Chief Fire Officer, Jim Smith: Present Chief Fire Officer, Glenn Teal: former Deputy Captain, John Pendleton: and former Divisional Officer Ric Carlyon.

Members are proud that for 90 years their brigade has contributed towards the success of Auckland’s fire brigades. And, like the first members of the Fire Police, today’s Operational Support members are all volunteers. Oh, and among their duties today is crowd control at fires… Inspector Broham would be well-satisfied that, 150 years later, his trust was not misplaced: volunteers can be relied-on for the long-haul.

RCC 22nd June 2023 Updated August 2023  UnAIded