After 36 years as a firefighter, Colin Russell still vividly remembers the first fatal incident he witnessed – for all the wrong reasons.
He was still a teenager, a new recruit as an urban officer in Dunedin, and was called in when a pedestrian was fatally struck by a car at a busy intersection. The scene was horrible.
“[I] kind of put [myself] in its place – just walk down the street in town and then the next thing boom.
“All of these thoughts go through your head when you step into her space and that’s not where you want to go.”
* Firefighters rescued the Pine Beach home as the flames approached so close they warped the window
* Call for more volunteers to join the Taupō firefighters
* The firefighter responds to a higher service call
Things were different then. Russell received little support and was told to pull him aside and enjoy a cup of tea after he returned to the station.
Today, Russell is responsible for operational readiness and support for 16 volunteer brigades in the Hurunui and Kaikōura regions, overseeing approximately 300 people.
The role was created in September following a national restructuring at Fire and Emergency New Zealand (Fenz).
Russell said Fenz recognized the need for well-being and support a few years ago, especially after the Canterbury earthquakes.
“There are very good support systems in place [now]. “
Russell, armed with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, could draw on his many experiences to help the volunteers under his command.
Rural and small town firefighters were often the most affected by trauma, as there was “only one or two degrees of separation” between them and the person they were helping, he said.
“[I’m] make sure they have the support of the brigades, so they know they can reach out and get help.
After his debut as an urban officer in Dunedin, Russell spent 25 years at Invercargill and became a manager. In 2011, he was called in to help with the response to the Canterbury earthquakes – the biggest event he ever had to cover.
“Just the magnitude of it – you’re never going to forget it.”
Russell became responsible for officer development at Rotorua, where he helped train firefighters in incident management and leadership for three years.
“What’s great is that you got to connect with the whole country… it was really cool to put your finger on all these little squads and meet people.
He then began to take a leadership role in Christchurch, working primarily on policy development, but aspired to be in the community and help frontline staff. He achieved this when he took on the role of supporting volunteers Hurunui and Kaikōura.
“[I was] do an important job overall, but you have to be careful to keep it balanced and remember where you came from.
In the little free time Russell has, he can usually be found on the golf course or digging in his many studies.
It was important for firefighters to have hobbies to relax the pressures of work, he said.
So far, he has completed a Diploma in Sports Studies, Graduate Diploma in Emergency Management, BA in Psychology, and a few other management qualifications.
“I’m still in this learning mode. Studying becomes almost a hobby, I always joke that I spent 25 years in college, ”he said.
“It was also a bit of a distraction because you can concentrate on whatever you are learning at the time. “
Russell planned to continue his education in the New Year, but his main goal was to return to work and do whatever he could to support the North Canterbury community and its “family” of firefighters.
“Thirty-six years later, I’m still here, I love it and I’m not looking to do anything else.
“You really feel the value that the work you do for the community meets this need… there is purpose in abundance. “