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Standing down . . . After more than a century of service between them, Waimate Volunteer Fire Brigade deputy chief Roger Bell (left) and chief fire officer Duncan Lyall are hanging up their helmets. PHOTO: CLAIRE ALLISON

by Claire Allison

More than a century of service to the Waimate Volunteer Fire Brigade will come to an end on New Year’s Eve.

As of midnight on December 31, chief fire officer Duncan Lyall and deputy chief Roger Bell will be hanging up their helmets and boots and taking a step back from the organisation that has been a big part of their lives for more than 50 years.

At 72, Mr Lyall has notched up a little more than 53 years’ service with the brigade, and Mr Bell, at 71, a little more than 52 years.

More than half a century ago, the pair were both boy scouts, and “Fuller Fire Flag” competitions were their early introduction to fire brigade life.

They were among a group of six to eight in 1968 who applied to join the brigade, and both worked their way up the ranks over the years; beginning as probationary firefighters, and eventually each serving as third officer and deputy chief Lyall to chief Murray Hamilton and Mr Bell to Mr Lyall when he was appointed chief fire officer in 1995.

And while Mr Bell and Mr Lyall might be retiring, their names will live on – the Iveco appliance is named Roger, and the Hino tanker is Duncan – both names painted atop the cabs, and likely to remain following their departure.

It has not been an easy decision, but they believe the time is right, and it was the right decision to step down together to leave the way clear for their successors, new chief Steve Pali and deputy Andrew Emerson.

The pair say the brigade is in good heart, with a lot of younger people coming through.

“At some stage you have to step aside and let someone else take over. Times have changed, and getting out of bed in the middle of the night isn’t quite as exciting as it used to be.”

Mr Bell says they have had the best of times in the fire brigade. Change in recent years has been rapid, and, they feel, not always for the better.

“We joined the brigade to fight fires, not to be a paramedic, and it’s heading down that track.”

Old school . . . Much of Roger Bell (left) and Duncan Lyall’s career as firefighters has been with the now-defunct New Zealand Fire Service. PHOTO: CLAIRE ALLISON

Fires now make up probably only 10% of the brigade’s call outs. Medical call-outs, assists and car crashes are an increasing part of the role.

But it is the fires they tend to remember; the Debonaire furniture factory fire – at the time Mr Lyall was factory manager – the Studholme pea factory fire, and more recently, the fire at Te Kiteroa.

The tragedies remain in their minds; three lives lost in the fire above the Savoy tearooms on the main street, and deaths in fires in Shearman St and Mill Rd.

There have been many deaths, too, especially on the roads, Mr Lyall said.

“One year was a really bad year, between MVAs and heart attacks, we had 19 deaths in a year.

“I drive the road from Timaru to Waimate a fair bit, and think, there, been there . . . ”

Support for firefighters dealing with the aftermath of death has improved greatly, Mr Bell says.

“It wasn’t so much in the old days, we’d just have a couple of beers at the pub and talk it over. Now we get good support from Fenz dealing with that sort of thing.”

Also improved is the equipment provided.

“In our day, you didn’t get much equipment and you didn’t get much money, we did a lot of fundraising.”

The brigade bought its first set of rescue gear, and Rotary donated the first sets of breathing apparatus. An early “appliance” was a Land Rover, with firefighters piled into the back for jobs around town.

Brigade members sold raffle tickets at pubs, collected bottles and glass, and carted hay to raise funds for necessary equipment.

They ruined plenty of pairs of trousers, too, Mr Bell said.

“In our early days, uniforms weren’t provided, you’d go to a fire in your own clothes. We had a helmet, a jacket, a belt with an axe in it, and a pair of boots.

“And all you had to do when we first joined was have your axe and helmet on, so in summer time, you might be in shorts and a tee shirt, or maybe a singlet.

“But we still got the job done.”

Cat rescues do happen, but there is a trick of the trade; firefighters suggest the worried owner pops inside to get some cat food . . . and while they’re not watching, a quick burst of water in the direction of puss usually sees it scamper down to ground level.

Both acknowledge the role their wives and families have played – and the impact on their families.

“You could be having tea, or at a party . . . and all of a sudden you have got to go. It’s a cost to families and a cost to employers.”

It will be a big change to no longer be at the whim of pagers, cellphones and the town’s siren, although they admit they might be likely to sneak down to the station on the odd occasion.