Break Ins, Fires, Car Accidents, Dog Bites – Just Another Day for Rural New Zealand’s Volunteer Services

Take a closer look at rural communities in New Zealand. The essence of communities like Katikati, in the Bay of Plenty, are the volunteers working to provide for the community, at no cost to anyone but themselves.

Katikati, with an estimated population of 10,000, is a small town full of contrasts. Moggies Market held one Saturday each month is a sample image of the town itself. There are the soft-spoken elderly who come to exchange news, noisy children skidding between tables laden with goods, and parents shouting their demands.

Spattered throughout the market are a number of ventures, like a sausage sizzle, raising money for volunteer organisations within the community.

Small towns are dependant upon themselves to provide a variety of services for their inhabitants. Volunteers provide services that are vital for the economic and social health of the community.  These organisations exist because of the time and resources given freely by individuals.

From recent immigrants, to indigenous Maori, to descendants from the original Irish settlers, the call to volunteer time, goods, services and money touches many.

In the middle of town stands the old Fire Brigade building, staffed by men and women, some of whom have given decades of service. One of these, Joe is a teacher at the local college, respected by both staff and children, teaching hard material technology or woodwork for those of us old enough to remember back that far.

For 36 years Joe, has been involved with the Fire Service. One of his projects within the Fire Service was to raise awareness of difficulties some cultures face in dealing with services provided. Some situations place Maori in conflict with their beliefs. In saving a life they can come into contact with areas that are Tapu, and they may need help in reconciling these differences.

Many of those in the brigade are ex-students he knows well. “There’s some in the brigade now I’ve taught as students, and they’re good, they respect me as a chief.” A quietly spoken man, lounging around in shorts and t-shirt, he emanates authority.

“Younger recruits coming in, the first year is exciting because of the hype; the siren, riding in the fire truck, the limelight.” Joe pronounces it sireen. Leaning back till his chair tilts on its back legs, he laughs as he tells about one of his favourite past-times with the brigade. “Down the end of Park Road we practise plugging into the hydrant.” Timing is important he says. “When everyone is having a shower, the water pressure goes shoosh,” his hand adding emphasis by imitating a slide.  More than one irate householder has come running out their door, to face a group of laughing men in full regalia.

“The lifecycle of a (volunteer) fire-fighter today is minimal. If we can hold him for 5 years I’m happy.” He is quick to defend the fire-fighters who leave. “Employers are not as accommodating, the difficult time for call-outs is daylight hours during the week,” says Joe. With a fire-fighter gone for hours, businesses are left to bear the cost. Self-employed fire-fighters have to choose between their livelihoods and the service. With what it costs to train fire-fighters, you’re left wondering why more isn’t done financially to encourage them to stay.

“Family first, then work, then the Fire Service is what I tell recruits,” he says. He speaks from experience. Being a volunteer fire-fighter means sacrifice, their own and their families. “Talking about myself, I’ve sacrificed a lot of my children’s time. When the siren goes and we were going away or had something on, that siren goes and that was it.”

Fire-fighters come to the job with a variety of expertise. Some are electricians, others office workers, but all their skills are of use to the brigade. According to Joe, “You’ll never get another organisation like it; you share a common bond, you’ve got a common goal.”

Their commitment involves similar training to the paid professionals. Courses are mandatory, but are completed in the volunteers own time. No reimbursement is received from the government for attending anything other than urban fires; therefore, funds need to be raised to attend motor vehicle accidents, search and rescue operations, false alarms or rural fires.

Other than Volunteer Day held yearly by the Government to recognise service to the community, there is scant recognition for volunteer workers. While some receive medals for their efforts, others go unnoticed by the community until they are needed.

Victim Support provides 24-hour-a-day assistance for trauma and crisis victims. Sally joined Victim Support eight years ago. She had earlier been a member of St Johns Ambulance till an injury made that no longer possible. During those years she has attended many differing situations.

So what does Victim Support actually do? “A little old lady gets broken into. You can board up her windows; ring the glass man the next morning, and she’s got you sitting in her house till the sun comes up, and she’s feeling a lot better,” says Sally. With her composed attitude it is easy to imagine her boarding up the windows while boiling the kettle for a relaxing cup of tea.

Sally has also been involved in various other types of cases. Everything from a dog bite, death, and accidents. It’s about providing victims, or those left to deal with the after effects, solutions. It may just be being there and advising who to contact. I asked her why she gives her time.

“Knowing that in a really bad situation there are people who haven’t been left alone, that’s what I get out of it.”

Does her family resent the time she spends helping others, the inconvenient hours?  She says they’re getting used to it. “Burglaries, car crashes happen at two in the morning. If you are passionate about it, you’ll make it work.”

There are many more agencies that work for little or no remuneration. St Johns Ambulance is mainly staffed by volunteers; the Lions raise funds for volunteer services, in particular the Fire Service. Meals on Wheels, church groups and Night Owls are just some of these.

Katikati, like other rural communities, would not function without the selfless acts of the individuals who make up these organisations. From the people selling sausages for a dollar at the market, to those individuals who put themselves at risk to save lives, each one of them contributes in whatever way they can. The Health and Safety in Employment Act defines a volunteer as someone who does not expect or receive any reward for their work. Yet those that I spoke to, say they are rewarded all the time, that the reward is in the giving.

6 thoughts on “Break Ins, Fires, Car Accidents, Dog Bites – Just Another Day for Rural New Zealand’s Volunteer Services”

  1. I’ve always respected people who give of themselves to help the community. Sadly, it is not as prevalent as it used to be. But, like you said, family and work must come first.


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