On the Record: Fire in the blood

By Carly Gibbs

He grew up with a fireman as a dad and has dedicated his own life to helping the community and raising the profile of the profession. Fire chief Ron Devlin reflects on a three decade career, and the calendar that's setting hearts on fire.

That's one of the first things I always get asked," Ron Devlin shakes his head and crosses his legs.
Are you a calendar guy?
"Well, what do you think?," he retorts with a cheeky grin.
Devlin, Bay of Plenty Coast fire chief, says the fire service has done a number of things over the years to up its profile and none have been more successful than the New Zealand Firefighters Calendar, where fire fighters take their kit off for charity.
A quick look on the New Zealand Fire Service's Facebook page shows crooning women leaving posts such as: "The men in the calendar are delicious. Are any of them single? I want to marry a firefighter".
I ask Devlin if you have to be up to a certain grade to make the calendar?
"I suspect you do," the 53-year-old chortles in his Scottish accent.
"It's bittersweet. I think what happens to some of the guys is they make the calendar, then for the next 10 years they get ragged about it ... They've never had any problems selling them, in fact they sell out like that," he says, clicking his fingers.
It's far from sexist though, with women firefighters now having a calendar too.
My wife will make me leave
"We've got a number of women, three or four paid women in the brigade in Tauranga and Kawerau. Maketu is a good 30 to 40 per cent women," Devlin reports. "I remember when it was first mooted there were guys standing up at union meetings saying 'if women join, my wife will make me leave'." He laughs at the memory.


"I remember a group of guys going off and doing interviews for recruitment and coming back to my office the next day and saying they'd selected this person. 'It's a female,' they said. 'The only problem is, we could end up with two people of the same gender in the back of the truck'."
Oh, how times have changed.
"They're bloody good firefighters."
"They add a great dimension to the organisation. [We] have started to move away from an incredibly robust culture to something that's more intuitive today".
Sense of humour welcome

Devlin's not your typical big, beefy firefighter. He's got a lean frame and talks in a quiet voice and it's all facts and figures and all quite serious - until every now a gem escapes from his mouth and we both start laughing.
You see, a sense of humour is more than welcome in the Fire Service. It's practically a requirement when you see some of the grisly things firefighters do.
Friend and director of strategic development for the New Zealand Fire Service Bill Butzbach, tells me his old mate of 20 years has a "wicked" sense of humour and loves a good laugh.
But he warns, Devlin doesn't suffer fools gladly and exhibits moral courage. "He's got resolute," Butzbach informs me over the phone from his post in Wellington.
"There's a time for fun and a time for work and the two don't mix".
It scared the bejesus out of him

Glasgow-born Devlin has been in the fire service for over three decades. His dad Tom was a firefighter and they lived in Camden Town station and another in Hertfordshire. He grew up shimmying down a firefighter's pole.
He moved with his parents to New Zealand in 1972 when he was 15, and after a stint working in the gas industry he decided to join the fire service.
His first fire scared the bejesus out of him, he recalls.
"It was something like 2am in the morning. I was stationed at Wellington Central, I was 21. I remember the alarms going and it was all very exciting and I was all very tired and like a possum stuck in the headlines," Devlin says widening his eyes for effect. "You had to run, literally run, to catch the appliance."
They got to a house downtown and it was well alight. He tumbled out of the fire truck and found himself at the back of a house, moving from light to dark.
Was he having a panic attack?
"Not as a I recall," he says with raised eyebrows. "I think I was having more of a 'what the hell?' attack, ha, ha, ha."
Two teenagers died in the fire and Devlin says it was a poignant moment for him as he questioned whether this was what he wanted to do.
"[Training] was like boot camp. They threatened you with all of thunder and with the whole might of God if you didn't get up in the morning but quite frankly, that was nothing compared to the reality of the job."
Devlin learnt quickly firefighters had to be stoic and not damage easily - "both physically and mentally".
Active community work
He's been in Tauranga for 12 years and oversees 19 stations from Tauranga to Waihau Bay, that's 80 paid staff and more than 400 volunteers.
The Tauranga station is the busiest of them all, with up to 900 calls a year.
Devlin says over the years attitudes towards the fire service have changed both internally and externally.
"Way back in the late 70s it was quite a shift from what was the traditional standing around the pole, painting, or fixing things to programmes of skill and evaluation training and going out to the community. In the mid 90s we really drilled that quite hard.
"By the early 2000s our firefighters were doing lots of active community work and the Fire Wise programme (was launched) ... Nowadays were are also active with pre-planning".
For example, says Devlin, there is 200 million litres of petrol sitting on the wharf in Mount Maunganui and that creates anticipation and preparedness.
Times have changed - and with them the fire service's image.
"A lot of it had to do with the service looking at where they were positioned in the world. We're not just a bunch of clowns who run around in a fire engine with flashing lights and look like the Keystone Cops.
"There's an absolute science behind it and there was a need to promote that science, while at the same time letting the community know who we are and what we could do for them.
"I think we can proudly say that the major events that have occurred in New Zealand over the last few years, the fire service has taken quite a leading role in most of them."
Urban Search And Rescue (Usar) belongs to the fire service.
"Not many people know that."
Making a difference

Devlin hasn't fought a fire in a long time but he does visit the scene of fires regularly and recently worked as the operation commander for the Fire Service's night shift in Christchurch.
"Sometimes I miss it and ask 'why was it I joined this again?' but I had a reasonably good dose of that when I went down to Christchurch. In 1995, I came off the fire engines and hadn't done night shifts till then."
Devlin's voice grows quieter as he says: "I've always considered myself to be privileged, to have the trust of the community to do what it is, I do. I've loved every minute of it. You get a real sense of making a difference and whether it's riding a fire engine, or, would you believe, sitting in this office."
He has three daughters and a partner called Deborah. He still wears a uniform. His office has a few fire fighting figurines. It's very tidy. Devlin loves his job, reckons it's a privilege to help his community.
Does he think the fire service has as high a profile as the police?
"I think we're noisier," he offers. "I think we're kinda in your face with these big red and yellow and blue-looking fire trucks. I remember talking to [former National MP and Wellington mayor] Mark Blumsky and showing him around the station in Wellington central ... I was showing him fire prevention and fire safety aspects and he said to me: 'I really understand all these fire safety initiatives, they're great, and they're a central part of what you do, but when you look at this [fire engine], this is sexy'."
"And I suppose to some degree, it's been a bit of an ambition of mine to make the other bit sexy, because that's the bit you want people to take notice of.
"I understand the raw, gritty bit of jumping on a fire engine and going out there and snatching old ladies from windows and babies from beds, is without a doubt the sexy bit. Young children just look at the big red fire truck and I'm sure they don't see sexy, it's probably something that's akin to Star Wars ..."
I ask Devlin's friend and fellow Tauranga Sunrise Rotary Club member Sally Morrison, what she makes of Devlin.
She replies: "If I think of Ron, it's that he absolutely loves life. He's always got a smile on his face, he's always got a joke, he's always got a twinkle in his eye. He's jolly good company and he cuts to the chase.
"He's straight there, no pussy footing around, just boof-o. "
I'm glad Devlin made the time to sit down with me. As I go to leave his office, which to be fair is a bit of a rabbit warren on the second storey, I take not one but two wrong turns.
I tell Devlin I wouldn't be good in a house fire.
"Well, you can't see anything anyway," he says. Good point.

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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