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Peter Dunne: reopening of Wellington Central Fire Station

Peter Dunne on the reopening of Wellington Central Fire Station

150th Anniversary and Reopening of Wellington Central Fire Station – 2 Oriental Parade, Te Aro, Wellington

Good afternoon everyone, and thank you for the invitation to speak today.

I have been looking forward to this occasion.

The country’s fire services have become an increasingly absorbing and important part of my portfolio of responsibilities in recent times.

Principally, that is because of the Fire Services Review, which I am sure all of you are aware of.

The review is looking at a variety of things, including the structure and funding of rural and urban fire services, modernising relevant legislation, strengthening the support framework for volunteers and workforce engagement, and co-ordination with other emergency services.

One of the outcomes, no matter what the eventual model chosen, will be to ensure our firefighting resources align with where we need them most.

And there is no question that Wellington Central Fire Station is one of those places where the need is great.

This station is one of the country’s busiest after a very small number in and around central Auckland.

Each year, the station’s firefighters respond to anywhere between two thousand and two and a half thousand callouts.

For that reason alone, the refurbishment and earthquake-strengthening of Wellington Central Fire Station is a fitting investment.

A great deal of work has gone on that the average passerby would be hard-pressed to notice.

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And again, that is fitting for a heritage-listed building, where it is important to retain the art deco appearance – right down to the correct palette for the period.

I will not dwell on the details of the work, which I am sure other speakers are in a better position to discuss, but I would note that firefighters moved back in about the time the 20-month project ended in January this year.

Ensuring we have a modern, properly equipped Fire Service that is able to deal with the challenges and changes that will inevitably come its way in the decades ahead is also a goal of the Fire Service review.

The inevitability of change, and of the need for renewal, is one of the things to strike anyone reading through the archives about the station.

When it opened in 1937, The Evening Post declared it to be “the best equipped and most up to date in the Dominion” and also “in great contrast to the cramped and out-of-date premises so long occupied by the Central Brigade in Mercer Street”.

Perhaps the capital’s now-departed newspaper had a smidgeon of self-interest in its declaration, for the family of the paper’s founder had gifted the station’s clock to the city, and after a period atop the Town Hall it was moved, out of safety concerns, to its present location.

From a horse and cart in Mercer Street, firefighters now had room for nine fire engines.

They also had extensive on-site accommodation.

There was housing for 35 single men as well as a flat for the Chief Fire Officer and married accommodation on an upper level around a tennis court.

It was a community all of its own, with a mechanics workshop, a stores room, a movie theatre and a bar.

But anyone who lived and worked here before 1990 would not recognise the station today.

Changing staff levels, technology advances and other improvements have transformed it.

The station today has about 30 paid firefighters.

The brigade has about 200 paid firefighters and about the same number of volunteer firefighters.

As in so many stations, firefighters here are called upon to respond to a great range of emergencies – fires, of course, but also rescues and medical emergencies, hazardous substances emergencies, and motor vehicle accidents to name but the most common.

Of course, the station’s crews have had their share of spectacular fires to deal with in the years since the city northern and southern brigades merged in 1865 to form the Wellington Fire Brigade.

Near to my own place of work was one: the Parliament Buildings fire of 1907 that destroyed many private and public collections.

Fire spread rapidly through the old wooden parts of the buildings and then into the masonry additions of the 1880s.

The following day, the scale of the destruction was revealed – the old wooden buildings were completely gone, but the country’s de facto national library – with its eighty thousand volumes – had been saved by a protective barrier of brick walls and a metal fire door.

The brigade was to come up time and again against the scourge colonial towns and cities – old tinder-dry wooden buildings packed closely together.

The war years were tough on the brigade – able-bodied firefighters were hard to find.

At one point, in 1943, fifty-two taxi drivers and their cars were made available for towage purposes. In the same year, the very spectacular fire at Shed 53 on Kings Wharf destroyed a large amount of bonded and general goods.

In 1946, the New Zealand Centennial Buildings in Rongotai went up in smoke – a fire so fierce and spectacular that The Evening Post claimed residents in Kelburn could read the paper by its light – an exaggeration of course, but it gave some indication of the fire’s immensity.

The Hope-Gibbons building fire in 1951 was another of those fires lodged in the memories of old members of the brigade, along with the Hannah’s fire on Lambton Quay in 1977.

The rescue efforts in response to the Wahine disaster in 1968 is also part of brigade lore, along with the callout to the fire at Broadcasting House, then in midst of demolition, in 1997 and most recently, the Kiwi Storage fire in Kilbirnie last year.

The brigade, as everyone knows, celebrates one hundred and fifty years of operation this year.

The station has stood for seventy-eight.

Brigade and station have seen their quota of change and adversity.

They have stood the test of time, and our reliance on both is undiminished.

To brigade members old and new, I say, on behalf of the city, thank you.

ENDS

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