Christchurch: The people who made a big difference

By Michael Brown

As Christchurch marks two years since the earthquakes, Michael Brown of APNZ looks at a group of people who made a big difference.

Alastair Suren of the Lyttelton Volunteer Fire Brigade at work after the 22 February quake. Photo / Supplied
Alastair Suren of the Lyttelton Volunteer Fire Brigade at work after the 22 February quake. Photo / Supplied

Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said, 'we make a living by what we do, but we make a life by what we give'.

These words are as relevant now as they were 60 years ago and they echo an approach that helped the people of Christchurch deal with New Zealand's worst natural disaster on February 22, 2011. Amid the sense of helplessness, there were many more who simply wanted to help.

They assisted neighbours, the elderly, unfortunate or injured. They went out of their way to make life more bearable for others and, ultimately, they helped get Christchurch back on its feet sooner.

For some like Alastair Suren, who was part of the Lyttelton Volunteer Fire Brigade, it was an immensely rewarding time. Lyttelton was devastated by the 6.3 magnitude quake and multitude of aftershocks and the fire brigade fielded 580 calls for assistance in two weeks - they normally receive about 130 a year.

"Many people said to me that they envied what I did because I was able to help," said Suren, who has captured the stories of 22 men and women of the Lyttelton Volunteer Fire Brigade in a book entitled The Brigade. "They felt helpless not helping but, for me, it was an incredible feeling to be part of an organisation that helped people after this event. It was the best and worst thing I have ever experienced.

"A lot of people fled from Christchurch and left with enduring images of destruction and despair. All I remember is seeing people helping others and an amazing feeling of empowerment. "

It's often why volunteer organisations see a significant surge in new recruits after times of great stress - it's the best marketing campaign money can't buy - but it's still estimated only 2 per cent of the population volunteer for anything on a regular basis. Often these are for services that are taken for granted by the wider population. When something happens, there's an expectation they will be there to help and, invariably, they are volunteers.

There are about 9000 fire fighters in the country; 7000 of whom are volunteers. St John, which is a charitable organisation, has 2000 paid employees as well as 8000 volunteers ranging from ambulance officers to those in their nineties working as caring callers.

St John has a strong brand in New Zealand and don't tend to struggle to recruit volunteers but operations director Michael Brooke isn't surprised by this.

"The New Zealand structure is built on volunteers," he said. "You will always have some who don't get involved in their communities but many do and they look for ways of doing that.

"People want to give and make a difference. It's just something that happens in people's lives at various stages and, when it happens, they think about where they can do that. It then comes down to what volunteer services meet their needs. People look for what works for them."

It can be a massive commitment and some dip in and out depending on their situation. There are about 3500 volunteer ambulance officers in New Zealand and they need to attain a level of proficiency up to national diploma level and then be required for shift work.

Fire recruits also go through intensive training and many brigades then operate on rosters depending on the numbers they have. At Lyttelton, they are invariably on call every second weekend and obliged to answer the siren at any time of the day or night. In Whakatane, where Suren has since relocated, they are on call once every four weeks.

While it can be hard on the volunteers, it can be equally difficult for their families who have to live with someone who can leave them in an instant or who is bound to an area because they are on call. And for every natural disaster, there are hundreds of false alarms, car crashes and small fires.

Suren had a reputation in Lyttelton as something of a white angel. Whenever he was in Lyttelton, it seemed nothing significant happened but when he was out of town he missed the exciting callouts like house fires or chemical spills.

He was on the Kapiti Coast on February 22 and knew immediately he needed to return to Christchurch to not only be with his partner but also his community and his brigade.

It's what Churchill would have done.

* For more on The Brigade, see


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