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Farewell to firefighting

After 44-and-a-half years as a firefighter in Gisborne, Ramon Griffiths, or “Griff” as he is known, has handed back his pager. He spoke to Sophie Rishworth about his long career.

Senior fire fighter Ramon Griffiths, “Griff”, always enjoyed being a fire fighter. He liked helping people, and that no two days were the same.

It was generally a profession where people were always happy to see you, he said.

Griff, 62, has been retired for almost a week now. Already his wife Olly says she can see a difference. He is looking forward to getting into his shed, working on some furniture restoration projects, travelling, finishing the house renovations and for him and Olly to have more time for themselves.

The couple have been married for 31 years and have two children — Brent, 30 and Kelly, 28. They met at the fire station 35 years ago through a friend of Olly’s, whose husband was a volunteer firefighter at the time.

The fire station has been like his second home for a large part of his life, and his workmates like a second family.

Today, with almost 45 years of firefighting under his belt, Griff reflects on a career he said was very fulfilling.

He found it humbling too, especially when people showed gratitude for what he saw as just doing his job.

When big jobs were attended, like large fires or serious motor vehicle accidents, it was a matter of doing what you were trained to do, he said.

Communication with the people you worked with was key.

He thinks the biggest thing he will miss will be the people he has worked with and the camaraderie they’ve shared. He has also appreciated the relationships formed with the volunteer brigades throughout the area.

“These are great people doing a good job, and I am fortunate to have formed long-lasting friendships with a lot of them over the years.”

Firefighting is very much a team effort. In the appliance on the way to the jobs, the firefighters are talking, receiving information, communicating who will do what, where and what the situation could be like. It was imperative colleagues had each other’s backs in what could be unknown or changing situations, Griff said.

When you are dealing with fire, seconds make a difference.

Training is daily — every shift there are snap drills or scenarios. There are changes to technology, the trucks are computerised now and they have more access to information in this digital age.

When Griff began as a volunteer in 1975, it was for the Gisborne Fire Board. The big change to the Fire Service was the following year in 1976 when the Fire Service Commission came in, which meant more and better gear available and better fire stations and appliances.

The job, like any, had benefits and drawbacks.

“I found it not too bad with having children because you could spend time with them with the shift work, and still attend school stuff.

“The drawbacks were having to work weekends and nights. It wasn’t every weekend, though . . . and like for any shift worker, it’s a balance.”

The challenge and excitement appealed to the 18-year-old Ray when he joined as a volunteer.

He was a carpentry apprentice for Gregory and Alen and he said they were fantastic when he had to leave work at times to respond to the station for callouts.

“Today it’s a lot harder to release staff for volunteer turnouts — it’s just the economic climate we are now in.”

In 1978 Ray became a permanent member of staff. Over his four decades on the trucks, he remembers Gisborne’s big fires clearly.

The Gisborne Intermediate fire of Friday February 13, 1976 was a major job. The main assembly hall and some classrooms were well involved by the time firefighters arrived. The school had to be rebuilt afterwards.

Others were the 1978 Gisborne Refrigeration Company fire, the CR Taylor workshop fire in 1979 and more recently the Food For Thought fire on Gladstone Road in 2009.

Griff has worked with 10 fire chiefs and three fire station rebuilds — the station on the corner of Palmerston Road and Bright Street was rebuilt in 1976, 2006 and 2015.

Other changes include the variety of jobs firefighters now attend — incidents from medical events, chemical and hazardous substance spills, flood and storm events, and vehicle crashes.

Olly said she never worried about her husband when he went to work. They knew what they were doing, were well-trained, well-equipped and well-supported to do their job safely.

The one thing Olly said she would not miss was being woken at odd hours when Griff’s pager went off for an off-duty response to the station.

What has not changed over the years are the things that make a good firefighter — adaptability, practicality, professionalism, and a reasonable level of fitness.

Training is what creates the confidence when doing the job with your crew, Griff says.

“As with all emergency service work, the job also requires an element of mental strength. Some jobs attended can often end with tragic results. It is a case of being there and having a job to do, and putting aside any emotions.

“It is at these times that the strong camaraderie and support of your crew is invaluable.”

Griff leaves with no regrets after what was a long, challenging and fulfilling career serving our community.

NEW START: Ramon Griffiths has had nearly half a century of fighting fires; now he is ready to tackle what looks like being a busy retirement. Picture by Liam Clayton