No alarms - fire officer calls time

Barry Gibson, of Dunedin, puts behind him a 41-year career in the Fire Service, retiring this...
Barry Gibson, of Dunedin, puts behind him a 41-year career in the Fire Service, retiring this week as the East Otago fire risk management officer. Photo by Stephen Jaquiery.
Mr Gibson investigates fires around the region. Photos from ODT Files.
Mr Gibson investigates fires around the region. Photos from ODT Files.

For the first time in a long time, Barry Gibson can sleep easy.

The East Otago fire risk management officer has spent almost 42 years on call or doing shift work.

He retired yesterday with plans for settled days ahead.

''I won't miss my pager and the callouts in the middle of the night. I'll enjoy being able to decide with my wife, Gay, when we want to go out for an activity, and be able to organise it, knowing it will actually happen.''

Mr Gibson (64) became a full-time firefighter on March 20, 1972.

He was in his early 20s and working as a welder when jobs at the Dunedin central fire station were advertised.

''I used to watch the firefighters run around the block. After a nine-week training course, I became a paid employee of the Fire Service and it just progressed from there.''

In 1977, he became a training officer and three years later he returned to work on appliances.

In 1982, he started his first stint as a fire safety officer. After three years he again returned to front-line firefighting.

''It was good to get the variety and build up my experience. In 1995, I was asked to come back to fire safety for three months, to help out, and I've been here ever since.''

Mr Gibson said the building inspection, education and prevention aspects of fire safety were crucial.

He has investigated countless fires, and got great satisfaction from discovering smoke alarms had warned occupants, preventing further destruction.

About 80% of households had at least one smoke alarm, which was a point of pride for Mr Gibson, as he was involved in the initial push by the Fire Service for smoke alarms in the mid-1990s.

''In a lot of cases, smoke alarms have given occupants early warning to get out and get help, which means we don't have as many big fires as we used to, because we get there in the early stages.''

Still, too many people failed to install or replace batteries in the safety devices, he said.

The most frustrating aspect of Mr Gibson's work was knowing almost all fires were a result of human action or inaction.

For a long time, he had advocated house ''warrant of fitness'' checks by electricians, who these days had thermal imaging cameras and other technology to find faults.

''You get an awful lot of electrical fires, and the reason for that is equipment and its reticulation [wiring] doesn't last forever.''

The most harrowing case Mr Gibson experienced was a Cromwell house fire in which three children died and others were badly burned.

It started in a light switch.

People needed to take responsibility for their own safety and those in their care, including the young, elderly and disabled, Mr Gibson said.

Above all, firefighters such as himself had to practise what they preached.

''One of my biggest fears is having a fire at my house. I would certainly be scrutinised and probably be the butt of people's jokes for quite some time.''

He believed fire safety awareness was growing, as a result of Fire Service education and investment, but said people often forgot how much at risk they were.

''We all live very close to the danger of having a fire and that's why we have to take special care to make sure we are aware of what's happening around us. The most common thing people say to us when we attend fires is `I see it happening to other people but never thought it would happen to me'.''

Deliberately-lit fires were also ''far too prevalent'' and the Fire Service maintained good relationships with police and private investigators, Mr Gibson said.

He had confidence in those rising through the ranks to be capable of determining fire causes, although it was a skill which had to be honed.

''Fire investigation is a science in itself. It's the sort of thing you can read about, but doing the practical part is where you really need the experience.''

It took years to understand how fire burnt through different types of doors, how hot it had to be for furniture to be destroyed and why certain structures ignited, he said.

Investigators worked backwards, from a fire's edge to its origin, in determining the point of ignition.

''Having been a firefighter is a great advantage, because when you are in the fire, you get to see how the fire performs, and you know what sort of things offer resistance to the burning process.''

He recommended a career in fire safety and said there were huge opportunities for young people in fire engineering, which involved assisting architects in designing safe buildings to prevent, control and mitigate the effects of fires.

He would miss working with the community to raise fire safety awareness and make buildings safer, as well as the camaraderie among firefighters and Fire Service staff.

Mr Gibson praised the work of volunteer firefighters, as well as St John staff and volunteers, and civil defence personnel.

His retirement also brought to an end his involvement in the New Zealand Public Service Association, Hazardous Substances Technical Liaison Committee, National Rural Fire Authority and Otago Civil Defence and Emergency Management Group.

He looked forward to spending more time with his wife and their six children, and to being more committed to lawn bowls, as well as continuing work with the Fire Engine Restoration Society.

- rosie.manins@odt.co.nz

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