Hanging up his helmet


John van Leeuwen is going to have to get used to not leaping into action when he hears a fire siren blaring around Weston.
He recently retired from the Weston Volunteer Fire Brigade after 35 years of service, the last two-and-a-half of those as acting deputy fire chief.
Originally from Auckland, Mr van Leeuwen (64) moved to North Otago about 42 years ago.
Several years later, he was encouraged to join the fire service, and hasn’t looked back.
“I was a self-employed builder at the time,” he said.
“My electrician friend was in the fire service and that’s kind of how I got to join.”
He vividly recalled his first callout, which did not quite go according to plan.
“My first fire was a house fire at Five Forks. It was an electric blanket fire. The truck had broken down so we ended up getting picked up by some farmers and had a fire extinguisher, hoping to put it out but it was well involved when we got there.”
Eventually, the truck managed to get back on the road and the fire was doused.
Over the years, Mr van Leeuwen has attended many house fires, property fires and vehicle accidents.
He has helped Weston School with its annual Guy Fawkes celebrations, been involved with countless fundraisers, assisted at events such as car rallies, and installed smoke detectors.
“We average between 90 and 100 callouts a year. It’s probably one of the busiest brigades in the Otago region.”
Asked what he would miss most about being involved, he said it was all about the people.
“Working with the guys, just the comradeship within the brigade … it’s a fairly close-knit unit and everybody gets on. We all come together when the siren goes.”
However, he will not miss the callouts that came at inconvenient times.
“I don’t think I’ll miss the siren so much. I suppose the hardest thing is that the family suffers. When you’ve been planning to go out for dinner on a Saturday night and the siren goes, you have to be out there. Fortunately, that didn’t happen too often.”
He encouraged people, especially younger people, to join the fire brigade.
“I think if a younger person wanted to be part of it, it teaches them respect. It’s like the army _ there are rules and you have to abide by those rules. If you respect those, it’s a great opportunity for young people.”
The way fire services in New Zealand operate is set to change.
The New Zealand Fire Service and the National Rural Fire Authority will merge to create a single organisation, Fire and Emergency New Zealand.
Mr van Leeuwen is not in favour of the merger.
“I don’t agree with it. I think the fire service is the fire service, and rural fire is rural fire. The training we go through is probably tenfold-more than what rural fire go through.
“Those guys will have to come up to our standard. I don’t think that’s going to happen, to be honest, but we will see. They do a great job with what they do.”
Retired from Oamaru business Van Leeuwen Aluminium, he now has plenty of time to focus on what he loves –¬†fishing, tramping and hunting –¬†as well as doing a few odd jobs for friends.

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