New Zealand Fire Service: Everyday Heroes

When a firetruck screams by you on the road, where are they going? The guys on board, who are they? After they’ve done what needed to be done, what do they do then? What made these people become the firefighters they are?

I spent a day at Silverdale Fire Station trying to find answers to these questions and to hopefully uncover who these people are underneath the skellerup and the fireproof jackets. What I found was humbling, compelling, and left me with a great deal of respect that people like this are out there putting themselves in harm’s way so others don’t have to.

Here’s the published story. All images & words by Tez Mercer. Video by 2DudesProductions – Geoff Carlaw and Tez Mercer.




“The call comes in. A siren woops across the quiet firehouse. The Scania fire truck rumbles into life and

sirens blaze. The call is for an MVA (motor vehicle accident) has occurred, a man is stranded and in peril.

The 4 firefighters at the Silverdale, Auckland station were in the truck quick as a flash, everyone in their

designated seats, every one focused, every one professional. 5 minutes before they were attending to

various tasks: Qualified Firefighter Kevin McCartney was refilling the breathing apparatus cylinders,

Qualified Firefighter Becky Wood was handling some paperwork, Senior Station Fire Officer Jake

Kennedy was on the phone and Senior Firefighter Dean Olsen was cleaning his gear.




“We’re like a coiled spring. When you go, you go, but when it’s quiet you’re alert, but relaxed”. says McCartney, a recent

addition to this station which is manned by 4 full-time firefighters and some 35 volunteers. “No point

burning yourself out trying to be alert all the time, you can’t do it”. On the truck it’s like watching a

choreographed scene: the fire-retardant jackets come on effortlessly, marks of soot, ash and oil around

the FIRE RESCUE sign emblazoned large on the back. The gloves slide on, the overall trousers go over the

standard issue navy uniform and the impression is that they’ve done this 10,000 times and this is so

routine for these guys that they’re on autopilot. “How do you do that so fast?” I ask Olsen who’s seated

behind the driver, he just smiles at me as he’s pulling up his Skellerup boots as he listens to more

information crackling out of the radio up front.


McCartney on the radio with dispatch

McCartney on the radio with dispatch


This type of call is regular. The actual putting out of fires is thankfully a slim minority in a firefighter’s

workload. As people become more educated about fire hazards and smoke alarms become more

prevalent, the outbreak of major fires is a lot less than it used to be- in 1985 there were 7 fatal-fire

injuries in NZ workplaces, in 1997 that number was zero. Senior Station Officer Jake Kennedy says that

the majority of a firefighter’s workload is out in the community checking smoke alarms, giving talks in

school educating kids on fire safety and on what to do in case of a fire, helping people who have had a

MVA; installing smoke alarms, liaising with NGOs to implement efficient and safe fire protocols in new

builds. “We’re a service, we’re part of the community and we’re here to help” he says.




Kennedy has been a fireman since the 1970s. He saw an ad proclaiming the NZFS as having the highest

job satisfaction rate of any job in the world, and based on that he signed up. And is it true?


Senior Station Officer Jake Kennedy

Senior Station Officer Jake Kennedy


“Absolutely.This is the best job in the world” and what makes it so good? He gazes out the window thoughtfully for a

moment, turns back and says “there’s a bit in there about helping people you know? Being a people

person and wanting to assist other people when they’re in trouble. And then there’s the camaraderie,

I’ve never seen anything quite like it. There are the elements of excitement, but it’s always about

helping people”. These sentiments are echoed by the other full time staff at the station. Being a fire

fighter is not about the money, the glory, or the prestige, it’s about doing good for the community we’re

all a part of.


Firefighter Kevin McCartney

Firefighter Kevin McCartney


McCartney, who became a firefighter 3 years ago after serving in the NZ Army, says “I was

looking for something different, I couldn’t sit behind a desk all day. I need to be doing something… when

I joined the job I really enjoyed helping people and getting that satisfaction from helping people”.

Fire fighting is a profession that has changed dramatically over recent years and is shifting still. As fires

become less and less frequent through education and a more safety-conscious society the NZFS is

adapting their role to also become medical first responders to provide medical care until the paramedics

or ambulance crews can arrive.




Becky Wood, the youngest firefighter in the station at 27 is also a trained

medical responder: “I’ve been on more medical calls than anything else, and as we get better and better

trained there will probably be a lot more… We’ll turn up to jobs and the ambulance crews love us as we

can attend to the CPR and first aid while they attend to the more severe injuries”. Becky Wood is also

the only woman on the crew amidst a changing landscape in the Fire Service which is shaking off its old

stereotype of the ‘Old Boy’s Club’. McCartney explained the benefits of having a diverse workforce: “It’s

a great asset to have a woman on the crew as sometimes, women relate better to her than they do to



Senior Firefighter Dean Olsen

Senior Firefighter Dean Olsen


The NZFS has been undergoing a change in terms of its image to try and recruit more women, more

Maori, more Pacific Islanders, more Asian firemen to better represent the community. “Same for if

you’re Polynesian or Asian… we’ll go to someone’s house or workplace and their English might not be so

good. If you speak Mandarin or Korean or something you can get on their level straight away”. The old

stereotype is fading away to be replaced by a modern, progressive, and inclusive organisation: Kennedy

explains that “for many many years, the service was a male-dominated organisation, however back in

the 90s the Labour government were pushing for a more diverse workforce, across all the services, so

there was a push to recruit more women, Maori, Pacific Islanders and Asians. We now have more people

that can relate to communities better than ever before. We’ve become a lot more community-focused.”




As it stands today 10.4% of the NZFS are Maori, around 4% are Pacific Islanders and around 3% are

female. When compared to the 2001 figures of 5.3% Maori, 0.9% Pacific Islander and 0.9% female it’s

clear to see the landscape is definitely changing as the Fire Service stakes its claim at being a leader in

recruitment processes and recruiting from all parts of the community. The recruitment procedure to join

as a firefighter is involved to say the least. Whereas in an everyday employment interview an applicant

would sit with HR, answer questions about their work history and go through the “tell me 3 things about

yourself” routine, the NZFS adopts a multi-faceted approach to recruitment which can take months to

not only test whether an applicant can do the physical work but whether they can function in a group,

take orders, adapt, and spend time in an enclosed space (the fire station) with the same people.




The road to being a firefighter begins with an online application, then there’s a cognitive ability test,

then a physical test ; followed by a practical assessment course. After that comes the formal interview,

followed by medical and security checks. The formal interview is more situational than directly related

to the procedures of fighting a fire. Instead of asking “what would you do if there was a fire in an oil

pan?” the questions are more along the lines of “after a fire is extinguished, a Samoan man is distraught.

What would you do?” questions like this capture applicants off guard and also test how they react to

new information, or unexpected turns of events, which on a call could occur at any second. This also

highlights the awareness possessed by the NZFS of its role and place in a community, it sits within it, not

outsideĀ it. Once an applicant has been accepted through the testing phase there is a 12 week

training course in Rotorua before going on a 12 month probationary period. This long amount of time

spent working and training engenders a camaraderie and a strong sense of trust between the

firefighters in a crew: “Your crew are your safety. There’s a huge amount of trust… you have to trust that

the other guy’s going to be there. We all buy into it and live up to that trust.” says McCartney. Kennedy

puts another slant on it: “it isn’t just the trust on the calls, it’s trusting them with your life and your

problems. If someone is going through a personal problem, there’s people who will listen and who will





Spending time with the crew provides a tangible sense of the trust and friendship between the members

and garners a profound respect for these people who selflessly serve the community by helping others.

They don’t receive any special praise and sometimes it’s a thankless job as the men and women of the

NZFS are taken for granted. With that in mind there are a few things we can all do that would not only

make their jobs easier, but could potentially save lives when they’re on the line.




“Obviously, we need to get somewhere quick. If a house is burning down, or if you’re trapped in your car then every second

counts. If you see the big red truck bearing down on you, pull over to the left and let us pass, that’s all

we ask” McCartney explained. Another simple thing to do is to regularly test the smoke alarms in your

home and keep them operational and uncovered: “we’ve seen them with plates taped over them or

with batteries removed because it woke someone up once. You’ve got to test they’re working at least

once a month”. In 2 minutes a fire can go from an ember in a grill pan to engulfing a house. The adverts

on TV aren’t sensationalised and there’s a real need to be diligent and responsible around fire and fire

safety to keep you and your family safe.”