Sunday, 07 June 2020


Retiring from the Whitianga Volunteer Fire Brigade after 35 years

Well-known Whitianga local, Walter Russell, is retiring this week from the Whitianga Volunteer Fire Brigade after a career of 35 years. A function to thank Walter and is wife, Margot, for their years of dedicated service to the community was held at the Whitianga Fire Station on Saturday evening last week.

Walter’s family moved to Whitianga in 1941, when was just two years old. When he was 15 years old, Walter joined Land Search and Rescue. For the next 50 years, he took part in many land and sea rescues. In those days there was no separate Coastguard service to attend to incidents on the water.

Walter was also for many years a member of the local Civil Defence Police. Their job was to maintain law and order in the community when the sole Police officer stationed in Whitianga was unavailable. He was, in addition, Whitianga’s first ambulance driver.

In recent years, much of Walter’s time was occupied by the Coromandel Rescue Helicopter Trust, of which he was the founding chairman. He stepped down as chairman last year, but is remaining on as a trustee.

In 1984, the Whitianga Town Hall burned down. Walter went to see if he could help and was immediately set to work. He enjoyed it so much that he formally joined the Whitianga Volunteer Fire Brigade the following week. Given his experience as a member of the Civil Defence Police, he was made the chief of the Fire Police (these days the operational support unit of the Whitianga Volunteer Fire Brigade). The job of the Fire Police was primarily to control the public and regulate the flow of traffic during emergencies.

“At some point, our Fire Police unit was one od the biggest in New Zealand with nine members,” says Water

Looking back, Walter remembers the equipment and resources available to the Whitianga Volunteer Fire Brigade was sparse. One of the earlier fire appliances was open at the back, which meant that firefighters had to hang on the outside when attending a call-out. “We also would travel to a fire station in Auckland and swap a box of crayfish for some second-hand uniforms,” says Walter.

Over the years, there have been big changes. Not only is the Whitianga Volunteer Fire Brigade now operating with state-of-the-art equipment, first aid training has become very important. “If no ambulance is available when there’s an incident, then it’s up to the fire brigade to effectively administers the first aid that’s required,” says Walter.

Moving the Whitianga Fire Station from Monk Street to Kupe Drive was a highlight. “It took 17 years from when the first letter was sent to when we opened the new fire station,” says Walter. “The old fire station was getting too small and during summer, the streets would get so busy that it was difficult getting in and out of the station safely.”

Walter vividly remembers a huge flood in Thames only a few years after he has joined the Whitianga Volunteer Fire Brigade. “We spent two days pumping water out of the streets,” he says. He also remembers a big fire at the PlaceMakers building in Whitianga in 2009. Ten fire appliances from as far as Tauranga attended the fire.

Walter’s father, Les, was a founding member of the Whitianga Volunteer Fire Brigade. His brother, Graham, who now lives in Canada, was also a member of the brigade, as was Walter’s son, Doug, who’s now a member of the Kuaotunu Volunteer Rural Fire Force.

Walter says the Whitianga Volunteer Fire Brigade is a great organisation to be a part of. “You join and you make 35 new friends instantly,” he says.

In 2014, Walter was presented with a Queen’s Service Medal in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for services to the New Zealand Fire Service and the community in general.

Walter is a life member of the Whitianga Volunteer Fire Brigade and he and Margot will continue to attend social fire brigade events and help out where they can. “I’m retiring, but not stepping away completely,” says Walter. “If someone is needed to answer the phone or shuffling paperwork, then I’m happy to do so.”

Pictured: Walter and Margot Russell at the Whitianga Fire Station on Saturday evening last week.


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