Gold stars and 125 years celebrated at Coromandel Town Volunteer Fire Brigade

20 Jul 2021

Top Fire and Emergency New Zealand members from around the country descended on Coromandel Town on Saturday last week to celebrate a combined 100 years of service by three of the town’s firefighters and to mark the 125th anniversary of the founding of the Coromandel Town Volunteer Fire Brigade.

The festivities started in the afternoon and carried on into the evening

Greg Christensen and Kelvin Wirihana-Tawake received their gold stars for 25 years’ service while Chief Fire Officer, John Walker, got a rare “double gold” star for a remarkable 50 years as a firefighter.

There have been only around 200 double gold stars handed out in the history of the New Zealand fire service.

John’s nephew, Darren Walker, a station officer at the Coromandel Town Volunteer Fire Brigade, said that what made his uncle’s award so special was that all 50 years were served with the Coromandel Town brigade. “For a guy to dedicate 50 years to one organisation in the community is absolutely amazing - that is absolute dedication and he has been the chief for 33 years as well.” 

While John said he was “humbled” by the attention, what made him most proud was the presence of his son, Aaron, a pharmacist at Middlemore Hospital, along with the rest of his family to see him receive his double gold star.

Among the glitterati of attendees at a grand reception at the Coromandel Area School hall to honour John’s and his two colleagues’ achievements were the Fire and Emergency New Zealand national commander, Kerry Gregory.

John, 68, was born in Papakura but his family moved to Coromandel Town in 1954 when he was two years old, so he feels he can call himself a local. He started with the brigade at 17, but he confesses that his intentions weren’t entirely honourable. In those days the legal age for drinking in a pub was 21, but the fire station had a beer fridge for the crews to relax.

“I thought it was a pretty good opportunity and maybe a bit cunning, but it put me four years ahead of other young guys,” said John, who is now tee-total and has been for the past decade. “Drinking in those days was a big part of the culture of being a fireman and I enjoyed it. It was a bit like the Wild West, but I personally don’t drink at all now and the whole drinking culture in the fire service has changed and that is the message now.” 

A plumber by trade, John’s retirement from Fire and Emergency New Zealand became effective following conclusion of the festivities on Saturday evening. John said that some of the crew laughed at him because, for his farewell-do on Saturday, he chose to celebrate with an afternoon tea instead of drinks.

But there were other, more important reasons than the chance to engage in a bit of under-age drinking that attracted John to become a fireman. “It was just a natural thing to do,” he said. 

“A lot of us young jokers joined at the same time. Some of the members of the brigade were getting older and we had connections with them. Remember, it was only a small town and where we worked during the day was very close to the station, so we could run down if there was a call-out. I guess it was just being part of the community and being engaged in it.” 

John, who was awarded a Queen’s Service Medal for services to the community in 2012, said that helping others was a very rewarding experience, not just for him but for everyone in the brigade. For him, the best way to help was not to get emotionally involved in the tragedy of a fire or an accident, but to get on with the job he was trained to do in a professional way. “People remember the faces of the people who came to comfort them and help them get over their devastation, but they don’t remember the people who put the fire out.

“I am as soft as anyone, I am like a marshmallow on the inside, but I can honestly say I have never cried at a fire. I stay detached, personally. You get on and do your job and ignore the emotional side of things and concentrate on what you have to do - making sure help is on the way, making sure the helicopter is coming and there is a place for it to land.

“Doing what we are trained to do is the best way to help people. You are not being cold. You can go home and sleep well, knowing you have done your best.”

But sometimes, it appears that doing your best is not good enough for some people, which can leave a bad taste in the mouth. John remembers a house fire resulting in an insurance claim where the fire service got dragged into the High Court case, he personally receiving “obnoxious” letters from the owner.

The case was thrown out by the judge, but the owner then turned his sights on the fire service. “It doesn’t matter how much good you do, someone is always going to be dissatisfied,” said John.

He hoped his legacy would be to be remembered as a caring fireman who took the responsibility of his position very seriously. 

It is a legacy which has a lot of history and tradition behind it, as shown by the enthusiastic 125th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the Coromandel Volunteer Fire Brigade in 1896, following a fire which destroyed the Star and Garter Hotel and the adjoining Gold Condor Hotel, leaving a Salvation Army officer dead. A new fire station was built in 1985, but a replica of the old one sits behind the new station, complete with a 1934 Leyland Cub fire engine.

John said the fire engine was still in use when he joined in 1971, but when they got a new appliance at the end of that year, the Leyland Cub was taken out of service and went to MOTAT on loan before eventually being brought back to Coromandel Town on the centenary of the Coromandel Town Volunteer Fire Brigade.

“Sometimes it goes to Whitianga for events such as a funeral services, but it goes on the back of a transporter,” said John. “It is still roadworthy, but it is pretty fragile. It is good to have such a strong link with the past.”

John is now looking forward to spending more time pottering about his home and garden, and going out fishing.

Pictured: Photo left - Coromandel Town Chief Fire Officer John Walker (left) receiving a commemorative plague from Kerry Gregory, national commander of Fire and Emergency New Zealand for 50 years’ service as a firefighter on Saturday last week. Photo centre - John Walker presenting Senior Fire Fighter Greg Christensen with his 25-year Gold Star. Photo right - John Walker presenting Senior Fire Fighter Kelvin Wirihana-Tawake with his 25-year Gold Star.