Plimmerton Fire Station
(Arapawa Fire Region Station 35)
The little station that would be a restaurant.
Many think of a fire station as a place of bustling activity, resting importantly on a major junction or main road.
Plimmerton fire station sits on a rocky outcrop 10 metres from the high tide line and only a metre above it. And just about everyone wants to turn it into a restaurant!!!
The view is over the reef and mouth of Porirua Harbour, across the turbulent Cook Strait to the mountains of the South Island. Around us: sand, rocks, shore fishermen, bikinis.
It wasn't always like this.
The station site is said to be where legendary Polynesian explorer Kupe first set foot on Aotearoa (Land of the Long White Cloud) somewhere around 1300 AD after a marathon voyage from the central Pacific. Its modern claim to fame is as the site of Taupo pa, a principal residence of the famous Ngati Toa fighting chief, Te Rauparaha, in the 1800s. (Te Rauparaha was the author of the haka the All Blacks have used for decades: Kamate, Kamate).
In those days, it was a sandy beach and spit - the rocks arrived after an earthquake.
Plimmerton, as a European settlement, began slowly as a holiday bach area (a bach was usually a basic dwelling near the beach where, even in 1900, you could escape the normal life of the town for the long summer holidays). In those days Plimmerton was isolated but as roads and a rail link pushed north from the nation's capital, Wellington, the seaside town developed.
The biggest change was the arrival of the rail and day-trippers from the capital. Suddenly Plimmerton was a little version of the English south coast and businesses sprang up to provide essential services.
Plimmerton's citizens were at the mercy of several disastrous fires until February 7, 1934 when public-spirited men formed the Plimmerton Volunteer Fire Brigade at a meeting in Sollit's Billiard Room on Steyne Ave. George McDermid was appointed Superintendent of a brigade that had no uniforms or equipment. As it was the middle of the Great Depression, little help was expected from outside.
Minutes of a meeting held on 2 July, 1934, record that "members should hold themselves in readiness to answer any emergency that should arise." That 'emergency' turned out to be the Second World War. The brigade came under the control of the E.P.S. and had by that time acquired its first appliance: a hand-cart complete with bucket pumps. Firefighters were allocated a set of overalls and an E.P.S. armband. They were assisted in manning this fine appliance by military reservists stationed in the district. A large piece of railway iron suspended from a pole in George McDermid's garden provided the means of raising the alarm.
George McDermid resigned in 1942 and was succeeded as superintendent by Bert Bailey. Bert is now in his 90s and still takes a keen interest in the brigade.
It was around this time the brigade bought (from funds of unknown source) a Chrysler Straight Six converted to a fire appliance. This fine vehicle met its demise when its brakes failed on a run down Airlie Road.
In October 1944 a meeting was held to discuss disbanding the brigade. Fortunately this did not happen and Jack Lagden was appointed superintendent, beginning a long period of dedicated service until his death in May 1966. It was through Jack's drive and enthusiasm that the fire station was built on its present site and this was opened in 1955, construction having started in 1952. It was based on a radar installation shed previously at Pukerua Bay.
The brigade's main business in the early 1950s consisted of dealing with the many grass fires along the main trunk line caused by errant hot coals from the steam trains. However, in 1954 the brigade was involved in fighting the most disastrous fire in the history of Plimmerton village. The business block at the corner of Steyne Ave consisting of four shops, a picture theatre and a house was totally destroyed by fire. Appliances from Porirua, Paekakariki, Khandallah, Johnsonville and Wellington attended the fire.
Later that same year the brigade received instructions in how to conduct itself during the Royal Tour.
In an order from Dominion Fire Service Chief T.A. Varley, staff were instructed that:
* No truck siren to be sounded between 3pm and 7pm.
* Vehicles MUST stop as far off the road as possible as soon as the royal entourage is sighted. Crew to dismount; stand to attention and when the first 3 cars have passed, to proceed as usual not sounding the siren.
* On no account to overtake, must lose the time and follow on.
God Save the Queen, and God help you if your house was burning down! The brigade's traditional attitude to outside authority was nicely captured by local cartoonist Eric Heath.
The Hutt County Council supported the brigade in the 1950s and 60s. It provided funding for appliances but brigade members were also constantly engaged in fund-raising during this time. Great support was also given by local Lions Clubs who provided rescue cutting gear and other much needed pieces of equipment. Local residents have also been generous when called upon to support the brigade.
Since the 1934 hand-cart, a variety of vehicles have come and gone, from Chrysler Straight Six, Ford FC11 supplemented with Berefors (an later a Gwynne) trailer pump, Ford V8, TK Bedford, International V8 Automatic, 1968 Dennis, and our current old lady, a 1988 International C1850 with a Rosenbauer pump.
In 1973 the brigade came under the control of the Porirua Fire District and the loss of autonomy lead to some friction amongst the hierarchy. Since then, however, Fire Service restructuring has made Plimmerton a fire district and the brigade is now, to an extent, master of its own destiny and remains proud of its unique culture. However, we are fortunate these days to have the back-up of career firefighters based in Porirua, seven km down the highway.
The little holiday baches and day-trippers arriving by train have gone. The little fire station built from a radar shed is inexorably being surrounded by near-million-dollar modern housing as the old holiday homes are gradually ripped down. We are now part of Porirua city, only 20 minutes by motorway from the capital and come under the Greater Wellington regional administrations. Despite all that, Plimmerton (like its firefighters) retains its beach resort charm and independence.
Into the new millennium without any change in human nature, the brigade remains busy cleaning up after vehicle accidents on the state highway, scrub fires, false alarms, dogs on window ledges, the very occasional structure fire, (to get a full crew from their homes and out of the station in 3.41 minutes at 3.30am is quite a feat!). We also provide alternative medical assistance if the Porirua ambulance service is stretched.
And we remain staunch against restaurant developers.
We may not be as glamorous as other capital city Stations 35 - like Ladder Co 35 in Manhattan, or Millwall in London - but we like our quirky little shack. It's a great place to be, looking out over an ocean of many moods when you've finished dealing with emergencies and the trauma involved.
Plimmerton Volunteer Fire Brigade has a great family tradition: The Tovey, Barlow, Casey and Sutorius families have all had several members pass through the ranks and serve their community. The most recent addition to this tradition are the brothers Anthony and Patrick Van Son.
The Sutorius family is claiming a lineage back to Marcus Sutorius, fire chief of Rome under Emperor Caligula.
A volunteer station is an interesting place. In Plimmerton's case it is staffed by a mixture of electricians, restaurateur, film-maker, builders, electronics guys, polytechnic lecturer, railways traffic controller, painter/decorator, actor, and so on. We are fortunate to have two professionals as chief and deputy chief. They are permitted to be on the volunteer staff because their current jobs of fire safety officer and communications centre specialist mean they don't ride the trucks in their 'day jobs'.
You don't know who the crew will be until it arrives, so you need to be very adaptable and the complete generalist knowing all parts of the job to an expert degree.
Plimmerton Fire Brigade has been lucky to have the long dedicated service of many fine locals including:
Morrie and Wick Barlow,
John Holman (who was awarded the George Medal for his bravery at the Tangiwai rail disaster of 1953)
Ian Scott (still active - 33 Years)
Johnny Johnson (still active - 27 years),
Dave Anderson (still active - 27 years),
Anton Sutorius (active with NZFS 50 years)
They are typical of the New Zealand volunteer - moan and bitch about the hours and 'the pay', but continue to turn out at all hours without question.