|The Unit was born in the inhospitable economic times of the early 1930's. Though its birthdate was not until 1933, it had its beginnings at a raging fire in downtown Auckland on the night of 16th February 1931. In fact, that night there were two blazes at the same time in the inner City. The first was uptown in Symonds Street near Karangahape Road in the historic Partington's Windmill, now the site of the Langham Hotel. Firefighters from Central Station were fully engaged there when the second, more extensive, fire broke out in premises known as the Northern Boot Company in Federal Street, downtown. (picture left)|
The Brigade is stretched
With all City men and machines committed at the Windmill, suburban stations emptied out as firefighters rushed to the city to tackle the second inferno, which quickly consumed other buildings, taking out an entire city block. Flames raced through the boot company, several warehouses, engineering workshops and a sail-maker's loft and sewing rooms.
Fire Chief of the day, Superintendent Bill Wilson (picture right), saw flames from the tremendous fire showing up downtown and sent what fire-engines he could spare. He then handed over the job at the Mill to subordinates and raced to the scene. He was to recount later that he was surprised about two things. the fire-spread through the entire block of buildings (it took 6 hours to extinguish) and the size of the unruly crowd.
Ugly crowd scenes
It was estimated in the newspapers of the day that 10,000 people had gathered. Among the throngs there were a few ne'er do wells who, in the tough times of the Depression, seized the opportunity to enter unguarded premises and remove what they could get away with. Others followed, looting anything of value that they could get their hands on.
Other onlookers pressed towards the fire for a better view, hampering firefighters who ran out more than a dozen hoses, playing their jets on the buildings in an attempt to surround the fire. Then, as super-heated masonry cooled, yawning cracks appeared and there was a danger whole facades would collapse into the street, falling on the hundreds of spectators. The few police available could not keep order. Chief Wilson had every firefighter committed to fire-fighting on four fronts. He could not spare men to assist the police.
Then, unexpectedly reinforcements arrived on the scene. Naval Officers on HMS Diomede and HMS Dunedin berthed across the harbour at Devonport saw the huge fire. Whether they were summoned or responded on their own initiative isn't clear, but some 70 men were dispatched by fast motorboat. Arriving in the city, the naval men marched up to Federal Street and almost immediately they were ordered to fix their bayonets and, advancing shoulder-to-shoulder, push back the more persistent elements in the crowd.
In the aftermath of the fire (picture below) Superintendent Wilson considered how things might have gone had the naval men not taken the initiative. He decided that a group of volunteer helpers was required which, with certainty would attend and take the role of the sailors at major fires. He had heard about Fire Police in other cities and towns including Wellington, and believed this might be the solution.
Formation of the Fire Police
|After a few false starts to recruit the required number of "citizens of good-standing", Superintendent Wilson found a pool of ready volunteers in the ranks of those who had served the Brigade but had resigned for some reason or another. The Fire Brigade Old Boys' Association was a fertile recruiting ground. Mr Harry Janes, the Brigade's trusted plumber, accepted the challenge to form the group, the Fire Board gave its blessing and the first meeting of the Auckland Metropolitan Fire Police Corps was held on June 22nd, 1933. Minutes from the first meeting show that 12 constables were sworn in and the Corps' rules were discussed, based on those in a handbook obtained from the Wellington Fire Police Corps (picture right).|
But it wasn't until a month later, at its second meeting that the Corps got down to business. Rules were adopted, its Captain (Mr Harry Jane) was elected along with other officers, badges of office were received from Superintendent Wilson, and the Captain asked him for funds for the Corps. The first outward correspondence recorded at that meeting was a letter to the United Fire Brigades' Association seeking membership for the new Corps.
First recorded big blaze
No doubt Fire Police attended other incidents in the 18 months before the first mention in the Corps' Minute Book about their work at a fire. 11 members turned out to a major blaze in Woolworth's store in Queen Street, on 15th January 1935. This fire consumed the department store and spread to adjacent premises. The Fire Board's entire resources were mobilised to Queen Street except for a few fire-engines left in outer suburbs in case of other calls. Woolworths was the first big test for the fledgling Fire Police and apparently they all did the right thing. The Captain, on behalf of the Fire Board, later complimented the men for the work they had done. But it had not gone so well for the Officer-In-Charge, Deputy Chief Fire Officer George Avenall. An Inquiry into the Brigade's actions showed a weak chain of command, resulting in greater fire-loss than necessary ... and his demotion to Junior Station Officer. Fire Police records show that there were requests for refunds from 3 members (who did not have their own transport) for hired taxis to get to the blaze while another member sought recompense for bus fares of one shilling and fourpence.
There was also indication at the meeting that the Police were not sure of the standing of "these new Fire Policemen". Discussion ensued about Constable George Hedlund closing a road to all traffic, in defiance of objections from Police at the scene. In his characteristic forceful way he said he had closed the road "to protect Fire Brigade property, which was my priority, not shared by the Police present". It was also decided that a quicker turnout of Fire Police was desirable at bigger fires, so radio stations were asked to broadcast a message "Fire Police report to Central Station" when they were required.