In the year 1867 the world was a very different place. New Zealand was still the most isolated outpost of the British Empire, barely thirty years old as a nation. When it came to civic services such as firefighting, there was no set pattern amid the ‘wild west’ chaos of the frontier.
From 1854, when the Auckland volunteer ‘bucket brigade’ came into being, the larger centres began to form their own separate ideas of what a fire service should be. Smaller towns, however, were left to their own devices.
Some brigades relied on citizens keeping buckets of water handy, while others were donated equipment by private companies. Firefighters were hampered by a lack of real authority — they were sometimes stopped short by being unable to demolish burning structures, source water from private tanks or impose rules to stop fire hazards before they caused tragedy.
At last, in 1867, parliament convened to set up a plan for all of New Zealand.
When the Municipal Corporation Act was signed it contained a chapter all about firefighting in the small towns of rural New Zealand. As it was reported at the time: ‘The act empowers the council to deal with fires, to lay on any works necessary for this purpose, to appoint fire inspectors and to remunerate any association for the extinguishment of fires. A fire inspector may take command of any fire brigade and enter on any premises, or order any building pulled down with a view to extinguish a fire’.
It was a turning point for firefighting.
Local councils could at last appoint an empowered representative to combat fire hazards. The core principles of this act formed what became the Fire Service constitution right through until 1900, the founding document of many fire brigades.
With every borough and civic council pulling in the same direction, things like standardised equipment, doctrine, uniforms and training were made possible. It was the birth of the fire service as we know it.
Fifteen decades on, we salute the generations of firefighters who have served their communities selflessly and with valour, often risking their own lives to protect their fellow citizens. It’s a proud history, and one which deserves to be celebrated in this 150th year since the act of government which set our modern fire brigades on their path.