Veteran firefighter clocks up 50 years

Veteran Taihape firefighter John Collings has seen it all.
ALISTER BROWNE/FAIRFAX NZ

Veteran Taihape firefighter John Collings has seen it all.

It's what they might find at road crashes that haunts today's firefighters.

Long gone are the early days remembered by John Collings when going to fires was what fire brigades were all about.

They still do, of course, but by far the majority of their callouts nowadays are to vehicle mishaps – and in the hilly, treacherous territory around Taihape that can mean some deadly outcomes.

And as winter grips the black ice that comes with it will almost inevitably claim another seasonal crop of unwary victims.

Snow bunnies from the likes of Auckland and Wellington who don't know the roads and fail to drive to the conditions are bound to be among them.

Collings, a 71-year-old 50-year veteran of the Fire Service, will receive a double gold star in August, only the second person to be awarded it in the history of the Taihape brigade, to go with the Queen's Service Medal he received in 2014.

Joining the service is a family tradition. Collings estimates a total of 249 years' service among the eight of them who have or still are serving, including his father, who was a fire chief.

He recalls fighting spectacular fires at the New Taihape Hotel and Robertson's Bookshop, but in the past few years the traffic accidents have come to shape his memories. Almost inevitably, given the small size of the community, one crash took the life of a close relative of a staffer who had turned out to the incident.

But on the bright side there was the family who kept in touch after their accident near Utiku following a day's skiing.

A father and his three kids were "hurt real bad", Collings remembers, after the dad fell asleep at the wheel and crashed down a bank.

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They send a card from time to time to the brigade and even came up from Wellington to put on a supper for brigade members.

"They were lucky not to be killed," said Collings. "It's not often we get a thank you like that."

From July 1, the service will be undergoing more change when it is renamed Fire and Emergency New Zealand in recognition of its broader roles today.

But at this stage it seems it will be "business as usual" for Collings' 20 troops at Taihape.

Third in charge at the brigade, Collings still turns out when called, but retirement and travel beckon, he said.

 - Stuff

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