By Jodi Bryant
It's 6pm and Steve Jennings is just about to tuck into a much-anticipated Sunday roast with his wife and three children when his pager goes off.
Everyone's eyes meet across the table in a silent acknowledgment of resignation. They know the drill. Wife and kids are used to surrendering their husband and dad to a worthy cause.
Steve has just five minutes to get to the Onerahi Fire Station to join the crew aboard the fire truck before it departs toward the emergency. It is then he is briefed on where they are heading but it's not until they arrive, that the fire crew will realise the full extent of the situation.
"You never know what you're going to turn up to, how bad it is or who and how many are involved," says the 45-year-old. "But the MVA's (motor vehicle accidents) stand out the most in my memory. Typically, they aren't pretty to attend."
The crew could also turn up to a vehicle, house or scrub fire, house flood, public hazard, such as a tree fallen on the road, a commercial building smoke alarm activated, someone locked out of their house or vehicle, medical event, such as a heart attack, or a cat stuck up a tree.
"Yes, this actually happens," Steve confirms. "Although we have only had one in the five years I've been involved."
Steve became a volunteer fire fighter five years ago after getting a taste for carrying out voluntary work as a teen. It derived from his love of the water which lead to volunteering for surf lifesaving for ten years and then Coastguard for another ten. After moving to Whangarei 11 years ago, he wanted to try something different and, following some encouragement from a friend who volunteered at the Whangarei Heads Brigade, decided to give fire-fighting a go.
He was surprised to discover a lot more to the role than meets the eye, beginning with the training; twice a week for up to six months, before undergoing a week-long recruitment training course and subsequent weekly training, along with additional optional courses to gain qualifications.
Then there's the community role fire fighters play, such as visiting schools and pre-schools and various community events to educate about fire safety. Steve is also the Onerahi brigade's health and safety officer.
A big event each year is the Firefighter Sky Tower Stair Challenge which fundraises for Leukaemia & Blood Cancer New Zealand. This involves much planning, organising, raffle selling and other fund raising, not to mention the rigorous training involved and the event itself.
All this, Steve fits around his day job as Northland regional manager at Southeys Group (hydro excavation specialists), and family life.
"It's not easy and sometimes you just have to take annual leave to do it," explains the dad to Jade, 12, Aimee, 9, and Reece, 7.
"We have a saying that family and work come first but it's not always easy to say no to helping someone, no matter what you're doing, so sometimes compromises need to be made with the understanding and support of the family. I'm very lucky in that regard."
As well as a pager, Steve has an app on his phone. It can activate while at work, asleep, during dinner, kids' sports and birthdays and, most recently it meant missing the family Fireworks Spectacular show at Toll Stadium while fighting a scrub fire on Abbey Caves Rd.
"I know my wife Lana and my family fully support what I do. Yes, she has her moments of 'You've got to be kidding, Really? That's four times today!' or 'I've just dished dinner!' But she understands the why.
"With work, it depends on what I'm in the middle of, sometimes you can't just drop what you're doing," says Steve, adding that if he has been fighting a fire the night before, he will always show up at his job on time the next day.
The worst aspect of the job, says Steve, are the MVAs and medical calls when the result isn't what was hoped for and it's impossible not to take the mental impact home.
"You can't help but take it home. It's not something you can just turn off and on. It's how you deal with it that matters."
The team cope by talking about it at the station afterwards and sometimes this is ongoing.
"It depends on what the incident was that we have attended. There are times, at the end of a hard fire, where a chat over a beer is appreciated. If it's been a traumatic incident, then a more official debrief is done and counselling is offered.
"Mental wellbeing is something that FENZ (Fire and Emergency New Zealand) and the station is pretty big on and they want us to talk, if not to each other, then to specialists. But we have a pretty solid crew here at Onerahi and we are happy to sit down and listen when someone needs to talk. I have to say though, I have a fantastic wife who is very understanding and is always there for me. If I need to talk, we make the time to talk. I really couldn't do this without her."
So why does Steve do it?
"Simply put, I like to help people and, saving someone's home or life is a big deal. I also love how it's a big extended family at the station. We all look out for each other and jump in and lend a hand when someone needs it."
And the roast will keep.
"My lovely, understanding and incredibly tolerant wife puts it aside for me to have when I eventually get home."