After nearly 150 years, the name “Fire Police” is disappearing. The New Zealand Fire Service has dropped the title and now all those presently serving as Fire Police will be known as Operational Support. This month, the country’s biggest and busiest volunteer unit, Auckland Fire Police, is holding a function to mark the change. The Fire Police badge has been proudly worn nationwide by volunteers who have faithfully served their communities and supported firefighters over the decades. We recall the history of Fire Police on the eve of their demise...
The first known unit in New Zealand was formed in Christchurch in August 1867, known as the Salvage and Fire Police Corps. Members did not have long to wait before their first major fire, and two months later the Canterbury Press newspaper reported “... a destructive fire at Christchurch College at which Fire Police turned out in good numbers and rendered all the assistance in their power...”
This unit — like so many fire brigades and fire police corps of the time — had its ups and downs and stops and starts, and in Christchurch there was a falling out when the unit declined to respond to fires with the hook-and-ladder. Despite differences, however, they combined to respond to a red glow above the Port Hills one October night in 1870. It was no scrub fire — Lyttelton town was ablaze. The Star reported, “The Mayor of Christchurch sent a special train last night carrying the steam fire engine and the fire brigade, together with the hook-and-ladder company and fire police. On reaching Lyttelton, the brigade found that two-thirds of the town had been burnt down, but actively set to work and succeeded in checking it in about two hours, ten minutes...”
Christchurch Salvage and Fire Police later separated. An attempt to restart Fire Police in 1908 failed. Insufficient volunteers offered their services and to this day it seems there was no revival.
Kaiapoi appears to have formed the second Fire Police Corps. The fire that engulfed the local hotel in March 1871 was probably the first they attended, just weeks after their founding meeting. Lyttelton enrolled Fire Police in 1873 after a series of serious fires in the town. The oldest hotel in Canterbury, the Mitre, had escaped the Great Fire of Lyttelton in 1870 but fell victim to flames and was destroyed in August 1875. According to the Star newspaper “... had it not been for the Constables and Fire Police, a great deal of valuable property would have been stolen, and as it was, there was much damage through breakage, and etc...”
Many towns followed the first three corps, enrolling able and trusted citizens as Fire Police. Of the main centres, Wellington Fire Police was up and running in 1877 and, after a couple of breaks, survives to this day. But early on, Dunedin City Council decided against Fire Police in 1880. Auckland was a long way behind. Its unit did not form until 1933. Not all Fire Police Corps were well resourced and lack of funding often led to disbanding. The Wanganui Corps, strapped for cash in 1881, could not afford insignia or uniform so decided on their own simple badge of office, writing “... in the meantime we will substitute a white handkerchief for the armlet badge...”There is often reference to purchase, maintenance and use of ropes and lines by early Fire Police Units — today white barrier tape is preferred for crowd control!
Many Fire Police Corps predate the formation of New Zealand’s single national police force in 1886. Thus while Fire Police were on the job supporting their local brigades, they were often joined by militia of paid or volunteer soldiers whose duty it was to provide the provincial policing teams of the day. Hence Christchurch Fire Police were told they had to work “as one, alongside the fire brigade, salvage corps and the volunteers.”
Many of those enrolled in the early days included pioneer settlers, businessmen and those in the professions. But not everyone thought that membership should be confined to reputable businessmen — in 1871 a Letter to the Editor of the Wanganui Herald advocated wider recruitment: “I will readily grant that their (businessmen) moral influence is enormous, but how many of them could keep their heads, could make their voices heard above the din of a fire, could run 50 yards without being blown, or could forcibly deter excited individuals from needless waste? – I am &c. Q.”
Most provinces in New Zealand had adopted a Fire Brigade Act in 1865, which included provision for Fire Police and gave authority to enrol members and swear them in as constables while they were deployed at fires. Public Notices in The Southland Times, March 1887 seeking volunteers for the new Invercargill Fire Police Corps spelt out what was wanted: “...men whose duty it shall be to attend at any fire to aid and assist the regular police force to watch over any property saved, to preserve order and to carry out any instructions, which may be given by any fire inspector in command...”
Were Fire Police needed? The newspaper Marlborough Express thought so in an editorial in December 1876 advocating the establishment of Fire Police in Blenheim. The article states, “It is a well-known fact that in nearly every town there are men who make it their business to rob those whose places are on fire. While everybody else is watching the progress of the flames they are engaged in carrying off any valuables. They can do this with impunity where the police force is small. There should be somebody whose special duty it would be to protect salvage from such persons. What is the use of saving property from the flames if it is to be stolen?”
From the very earliest days nearly 150 years ago, Fire Police have been sworn in as special constables, able to act while deployed at fires. All members were sworn in before a Justice of the Peace, usually taking the oath on the Bible. Until very recently when the change to Operational Support was signalled, Fire Police have continued to be sworn in, though usually only once when they join the Unit and not annually, as was formerly the case. The Oath has effect until the member is legally discharged. And the wording of the Oath, sworn until recently, differs little from that first administered in the 1860s, except “the Queen” being referred to in the text back then was Victoria!
Fire Police and the NZFS
Fire Police Units in many cities and towns over the decades grew up alongside, but unconnected with, the local fire brigade. Fire Police usually had their own officer in charge, sometimes called a Captain. The Corps managed its own affairs and sometimes had its own priorities on the fireground. This division often led to conflict. In the 1970s legislation pertaining to Fire Police was changed to bring them all under the umbrella of a national fire service. Fire Police could only be established by the local Chief Fire Officer and in line with Fire Service Commission policy. Even so, it’s true that some Fire Police have continued to operate in isolation. Integration as new Operational Support members might remedy this.
Fire Police and the UFBA
For 100 years, Fire Police and the UFBA were uneasy bed fellows. In December 1878, Fire Police were present at one of the defining events in New Zealand fire brigade history when the United Fire Brigades’ Association (UFBA) was founded in Christchurch. It now comprises some 520 brigades with 10,000 members.
But the relationship was not to last, despite Fire Police being involved with the UFBA right from its formation. Their eligibility for membership in the UFBA was on again, off again, considered again, denied again until 1934 when it was decided they were definitely not entitled to belong. The matter lapsed and Fire Police were shut out for another 50 years when finally they were welcomed as members. In the meantime, in 1969, Fire Police formed their own National Association which oversaw mutual matters and issued service honours until 1984 when the UFBA conference at Greymouth once again approved Fire Police membership. So more than 100 years after taking part in the founding of the UFBA, Fire Police were allowed to join the Association. Perhaps the relationship came of age in 2007 when one of their number was appointed to the UFBA’s governing body — its Board of Directors.
Fire Police duties have altered over the decades to cater for the many and varied changes in technology which, many times over in 150 years, have revolutionised fireground procedures. Now Fire Police find that they themselves are in transformation, dropping the familiar and proudly-worn nameplate, “Fire Police” in favour of a new title — “Operational Support”. NZFS top executives say it’s a reformation, a new look at the way these personnel will support those on the fireground and, while it’s business as usual, there’s new opportunity for a wider range of approved duties, a confirmed list of PPE entitlements, greater effort toward nationwide uniformity and integration, and later the prospect of a structured training programme.
You must be logged in to post comments. Please log in (top right) or register.