First lady firefighter tells it all

The country's first and latest female firefighters, Annie Barry and Soncerei Hemmingway, at the New Plymouth Fire Station yesterday.
The country's first and latest female firefighters, Annie Barry and Soncerei Hemmingway, at the New Plymouth Fire Station yesterday.

New Zealand's first female firefighter is a reluctant role model for the 51 Kiwi women who now battle fires for a living.

In 1990, Anne Barry (who likes to be known as Annie) received a QSM Commemorative Medal for services to women, an acknowledgment that she led the charge to open up the male-dominated job.

"But I didn't feel I deserved it," Mrs Barry said in New Plymouth yesterday. "I never thought of myself as a role model."

It had been the four days off each week which appealed, allowing her and her fireman husband John to enjoy their leisure time off - such as scuba diving from their 56-foot motor launch, Toy Box.

Now retired, Mrs Barry, who was born in Opunake as Anne Page, says it took three years before she won her battle to beat bureaucracy. In 1981 she was finally accepted into the male-only domain.

The thrill-seeker, who admits she suffers from a low boredom threshold, says she moved into the raunchy world of the male, "living with firemen, farts, burps and all".

At the time, the term firefighter had yet to be coined. She officially became Fireman Barry, or less officially, Granny Annie at the ripe old age of 29, the cut-off level for recruits then.

Mrs Barry has spelled it all out in her warts-and-all book, Playing With Fire, launched two weeks ago.

Discussing training at the New Plymouth Fire Station with New Zealand's most recently recruited fulltime woman firefighter, Soncerei Hemingway, yesterday Mrs Barry says she can take the blame for the "nutless dummies" now used to practice the famous firefighter's lift.

"You can thank me for that, because of my bony shoulders. I wrecked a few guys ..."

She advised the women who followed her into firefighting as a career to wait until their late 20s when they had a little more life experience under their belt, and not to overdo it, as she had done in her early years, trying to prove themselves.

She said with her small frame, she came into her own in the tight spots, ceilings and under-floor spaces. Her scuba diving also meant she could spend long spells in breathing apparatus.

The Fire Service currently has 51 female career firefighters out of a total of 1600. In the volunteer firefighting force of 7500, 826 are female.

The drive is currently on to recruit more women.

Mrs Barry is dedicating the proceeds of her book to the Parkinson's Society because her mother suffered from the disease before her death.

The couple, who have travelled across Australia in the last few years in their motorhome,are now based in Victoria, Australia. The next challenge is to check out Tasmania in the next few months.

But closer to home, the pair headed to Opunake yesterday afternoon to check out how the old home town is faring - and sell a few more books.

"We lived in (Olympic medallist) Peter Snell's house," she said.