A plague of house fires, several resulting in deaths, have ripped apart families and homes in the south this winter. As Southlanders look to keep warm, by lighting up their fires, turning on their heaters and throwing on the electric blankets, fire authorities are urging people to follow basic fire safety procedures and keep themselves and their families alive. Neil Ratley spends time with the men and women of the New Zealand Fire Service - the people who often have to come to the rescue of life and home because the simple rules were not followed.
Four pairs of boots and overalls sit on the floor of the fire station. Each set of gear appearing to guard a door of the resting fire truck.
It is eerily silent in the Invercargill fire station. The red trucks are parked but ready to roar to life.
I am on the night shift with Brown Watch, and senior station officer John Gilder gathers the crew for a briefing. Standing to attention, the eight firefighters on duty for the 14-hour shift face the veteran officer.
It is a ritual Brown Watch and other crews go through at the start of every shift.
"We just establish what everyone's job is for the shift," he says.
Two fire engines are each crewed by four firefighters. The seat each firefighter fills for the night dictates the specific role they will play when they reach a burning home, a car crash or other emergency they get the call to.
After the roll call, the crew members take the seat in the truck they will be attached to for the shift.
Breathing apparatus cylinders are checked and tags are filled in for the operation board to keep tabs on which firefighter is inside a burning building.
The trucks glisten under the lights as hoses are checked, equipment and tools put into their right place and water pumps tested.
Gilder has been a firefighter for more than 30 years. Like many other officers, he has seen it all. Fires, crashes and earthquakes.
"It's a job where fighting fires is just one aspect," he reflects.
Area commander Julian Tohiariki says firefighters attend a lot of other types of emergency calls. These can include car crashes, industrial site accidents and medical calls.
"These are obviously tragic and heartbreaking events, not only for the families, but for our firefighters," he says.
However, death and injury in fires, while also tragic, are often a different story. "In many cases, the people who perish in house fires could have survived if they followed some simple fire safety practices and had working smoke alarms."
This year alone there have been two fire fatalities in the south.
Last month, a 48-year-old man lost his life in a house fire near Balclutha.
In March, a caravan fire claimed the life of a 44-year-old woman in Invercargill.
The circumstances around both fires were sadly almost identical and, frustratingly, preventable, Tohiariki says.
"It appears in both fires, the occupants were living in 'temporary type' accommodation. No working smoke alarms, candles and alcohol also appeared to be a common link towards the fatal fires."
The fatality in March was the second in a caravan in the past five years in Southland and more people are now using caravans, sheds, garages and sleepouts as bedrooms.
"I want to urge Southlanders to make sure this type of temporary accommodation has a working smoke alarm, even if it is only used occasionally," Tohiariki says.
"These type of places usually have only one exit door so it was even more critical that a working smoke alarm was installed to give anyone inside early warning and a chance to get out alive."
It has been a busy autumn and winter so far for southern firefighters and in the mess hall at the Invercargill station, firefighters admit they continue to attend jobs where the fire safety message has been missed or ignored.
The typical stories and examples of how fires have started include unattended cooking, alcohol, smoking in a bedroom, candles, hot ashes in a vacuum cleaner and putting flammable items too close to a heater.
It's the simple things putting peoples lives at risk, Brown Watch agree.
Tohiariki, who has overall resposibility for sending men and women under his command into the flames and getting them home, wants everyone in the community to take charge of preventing fires.
"As a community, Invercargill and Southland have an unenviable record for house fires," he says.
"We have nearly twice the national average of house fires each year."
Education is the key, and the majority of the community are taking positive actions about their fire safety. However, the preventable fires that cause fatalities are "gut-wrenching" for everyone, Tohiariki says.
Brown Watch are in the classroom. Charts show how they are meeting their fire education and prevention targets in the community.
All fire crews in Invercargill have to be active in the community and spread the fire safety message.
After the briefing, it's time for dinner and I get my first ride in a fire engine.
There are no wailing sirens, speeding manoeuvres through traffic and red lights. Driving to the kebab shop is not classified as an emergency but a four- man crew must be with the truck at all times - even to pick up dinner - because a fire or emergency can happen at any time.
Last year in Southland, the New Zealand Fire Service attended 204 house fires.
Tohiariki says each one of those fires meant a family or person lost items precious to them, many were uninsured, people suffered burns trying to put the fire out and lives were lost.
Since 2004, there have been 11 fire- related deaths in Southland, with half of those in Invercargill.
On my second shift, I gather with Brown Watch for muster in the truck bay at the Invercargill fire station.
There are jibes about another quite night ahead with a reporter on deck.
The alarm goes off and the jokes are put aside as the crew switch on to the job ahead.
The eight firefighters step into the boots and overalls that have been waiting patiently beside each door of the fire engines.
Each firefighter takes their designated seat position and goes through the ritual of preparing for the unknown as the engines roar to life and sirens begin to wail.
I am just a passenger but I can feel the adrenaline rush a firefighter must experience as they head to the scene.
Gilder sits in the front talking with fire communications in Christchurch who gives the location of the alarm activation.
Senior firefighter Dennis Hika is in the driver's seat. I get a bird's-eye view at the skills needed to weave through traffic and reach a potential fire.
Hika has time to complain about the actions some drivers take when the fire engine comes up behind them.
"These things are not designed to weave through traffic at high speeds," he says.
But soon he has cleared the city centre and the truck is nearing the source of the call-out.
Sitting between firefighters Jonathan Duffy and Adam Milne in the back of the truck, I get a small glimpse into the systems that are in place to keep the firefighters safe while they save lives or someone's property.
The call-out ends up being a false alarm and, after a thorough check of the premises where the alarm was activated, we get back to base in time to catch the second half of the Super Rugby.
Tohiariki says with winter well and truly here in the south, the number of fires the men and women of the Southland fire brigades have to attend increases.
"We don't want another fire death or injury. Not all fires are preventable but fire deaths and injuries are," he says. "Frustratingly, again, a common thread in fire deaths and injuries throughout New Zealand and Invercargill is the outright flouting of basic common-sense fire safety rules along with a basic responsibility." Comments such as "I had been meaning to get a new battery for that alarm" or "my landlord hasn't installed smoke alarms" and "not my responsibility", are all too common and not acceptable excuses, he says.
The number of electrical fires has also increased and is now a leading causes of fires in the south.
While hard to predict and often a result of age, rodent damage, faulty appliances or just plain bad luck, the best form of defence is a working smoke alarm and having electrical appliances checked by professional electrician.
It is everyone's responsibility to make the home they are living in safe, to keep themselves and their family safe and alive. "This is homeowners, landlords and tenants," he says.
Sharing a cup of coffee with the crew of Brown Watch, the sun begins to rise on frosty Southland morning. It has, thankfully, been another quite night and talk is of the day ahead with their children and families.
However, from my short time with the dedicated men and women keeping watch in the night, I know they are always ready to drop what they are doing and rush to a fire or emergency.
After the most recent fire death, Tohiariki says the fire safety message is one that always needs to be fanned.
"We need to reach those who may be missing it. The hardest task for the New Zealand Fire Service is reaching the communities who don't consider fire safety a priority.
"It can be frustrating in my line of work when comments refer to fire deaths as just bad luck, or accidents. They are not. They are preventable."
But the the members of the fire service will always be committed to reducing fires and, more importantly, fire fatalities, he says.
I drive away from the Invercargill fire station and before I turn the corner, I hear the siren. It won't be Brown Watch leaping into action but either blue or another colour-coded group of selfless men and women.
They will be slipping into the waiting boots and overalls, attaching themselves to the breathing apparatus behind their seat and preparing to face the flames.
I recall the plea Tohiariki has made.
"On behalf of all firefighters across Southland, I am asking for your help to improve fire safety in Southland by taking ownership and responsibility for your own safety and any others you may be able to help or influence."
I make a detour to the supermarket. I need a battery for my smoke alarm.
Follow these fire safety tips to help keep you and your family safe and warm this winter.
Fireplaces and chimneys
Clean chimneys and flues before your first fire of the season.
Always use a fireguard or spark- guard with open fires.
Never throw rubbish into the fireplace - particularly batteries and aerosol cans.
Ashes can take up to five days to cool - always empty fireplace or wood- burner ashes and ashtrays into a metal bin and pour water over them before disposal.
Before going to sleep, make sure your fireplace fire is out.
If your electric blanket or cord is showing any signs of wear, have it checked by a competent service person or have it replaced. Don't take the risk.
Always make sure that your electric blanket is switched off before getting into bed.
Never use pins or sharp objects to secure the electric blanket to the bed and never tuck it in under the bed.
If the blanket becomes soiled, sponge it lightly and allow to dry naturally on a flat surface. Do not dryclean or use a washing machine or spin dryer.
When putting your electric blanket away for summer, don't fold it - roll it.
Heaters and clothes dryers
After kitchen fires, fires involving heating and drying are the next most common reason the Fire Service is called out.
Remember the heater-metre rule - always keep furniture, curtains, clothes and children at least one metre away from heaters and fireplaces.
Don't store objects on top of your heating appliance.
Never cover heating appliances.
Don't overload clothes dryers, and clean the lint filter after each load.
Portable LPG gas heaters
When using gas heaters, please take a few moments to consider the following safety precautions - they may save a life.
Make sure the ceramic heater element is not broken or chipped and that the element guard is in place.
Check to see that the hose is in good condition and doesn't show any signs of damage or wear.
If the heater does not light straight away, turn it off and then try again. Don't let the gas build up before trying to relight it.
Always have fresh air coming into the room where a gas heater is in use.
Have your heater serviced every 12 months.
- The Southland Times