Volunteer fire chief signing off after record run of 43 years

John Sturgeon is stepping down as chief fire officer of the Kurow Volunteer Fire Brigade after 43...
John Sturgeon is stepping down as chief fire officer of the Kurow Volunteer Fire Brigade after 43 years. PHOTO: KAYLA HODGE
John Sturgeon does not know life without leading the Kurow Volunteer Fire Brigade — and in many ways the brigade does not know life without him.

That will change this Saturday as Mr Sturgeon steps down as chief fire officer after 43 years, an achievement which is believed to make him the longest-serving volunteer chief fire officer in New Zealand.

Mr Sturgeon, who has been a volunteer firefighter for 49 years, planned to still be involved with the brigade and while he was sad to leave the top spot, he knew it was time.

"It’s one of those things in life where you had to step aside and let the younger ones carry on. Life’s catching up with us," Mr Sturgeon said.

Last year, Mr Sturgeon and former deputy chief fire officer Richard Nehoff agreed it was time to let others step up. But when Mr Nehoff died on April 20 last year, Mr Sturgeon felt it was the wrong time for him to move on and left it until this year.

Mr Sturgeon has lived a life of service, leaving his community in a better place than he found it.

Having grown up in Dunedin, he recalled watching fire engines leaving the Dunedin Central Fire Station and thinking he would enjoy being in one.

"Never to realise that so many years later I not only went on one of the trucks but began driving one of those trucks."

In 1969, Mr Sturgeon moved to Aviemore, working as an electrician for New Zealand Electricity before the Benmore Power Station in 1973.

It was there, aged 25, that he worked alongside Michael Galvin, chief fire officer in Otematata, who asked him to join the brigade.

After three years in Otematata, Mr Sturgeon and Mr Galvin went into business together for 10 years, creating Valley Electrical Waitaki Limited, and Mr Sturgeon moved to Kurow and joined the Kurow brigade. Peter Coughlan, of the Weston brigade, also went into partnership with them.

"It was rather ironic that here we had two chief fire officers and a senior officer ... all serving within volunteer brigades within the one company," Mr Sturgeon said.

After becoming a senior firefighter, and Kurow’s secretary, Mr Sturgeon took over from George Cogger as chief in 1979.

Through the years he witnessed massive industry changes, from budgeting for fuel supplies, uniforms and a length of hose, to new vehicles, equipment and health and safety measures.

He remembered when women were allowed to join brigades — Kurow now had three which was "really cool".

Callouts changed as well — where brigades used to attend chimney, house, vegetation, and grass fires regularly, Kurow, known as a rescue unit, mainly attended vehicle accidents and medical events now.

"The whole thing has completely reversed."

He could recall every callout — "you never forget them" — but it was vehicle accidents that left the biggest scars.

The trauma associated with accidents deeply affected his members, and dealing with that as chief was "probably the biggest thing".

He held debriefing sessions after accidents, peer support teams were available and each member had a support number to call, something Mr Sturgeon strongly encouraged.

"It’s so important. It’s getting people to ... have the guts to ring that number."

It was the camaraderie of the brigade he enjoyed most, and through the years he had watched members grow as people and as and firefighters.

"We all come from diverse backgrounds and no two of us are the same, but they bring with them a wide range of skills and abilities that we nurture and use within the volunteer organisation."

Mr Sturgeon had never envisioned he would still be involved today, and was "overwhelmed" to learn he was New Zealand’s longest-serving volunteer chief.

His wife Isobel and sons Brendon and Michael had played a "massive part" in him being able to carry on his role.

"I may have missed some birthdays during their growing up, including my wife’s, that was what it was then. It was a service to your community."

The brigade had been "amazing" and he wished his successor all the best.

--  kayla.hodge@odt.co.nz


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