Bob Robertson was just a teenager when he put up his hand to volunteer for the Queenstown fire brigade.
Sixty years on, after becoming the longest-serving fire volly in the Otago-Southland region’s history, he’s hanging up his helmet.
His unprecedented service is being marked during the brigade’s annual awards ceremony at the Rydges this Saturday.
Robertson, who turned 80 last month, joined aged 19 in 1959.
Back then, there were 15 volunteers and the fire truck was an old Ford V8 with a Scammell kick-start petrol-powered pump on the back, “probably no better than a hose reel”. And all of the call-outs involved actual fires.
“There was a guy working for my father who had the Mountaineer Hotel at the time and he talked me into joining.
“It was very hard to get in the brigade, I was probably lucky to get in, there was a waiting list.
“It was pretty sought after – if you were in the brigade you were pretty well liked.”
In 1986 he was awarded a gold star for 25 years’ service and made chief fire officer (CFO) – his first major fire after his appointment was when the Coronet Peak base building went up on July 2 of that year.
It was “a biggie”, he says.
The brigade had trouble even getting to the fire due to icy conditions on the road – Baltic temperatures also caused water to freeze in the hoses and there was no sprinkler system fitted to the new building.
But one of his most memorable, for different reasons, was the Apex Chalets fire on January 2, 1974.
“My wife [Fae] was in the home having a baby at the time.”
He received the Rotary Paul Harris Fellowship Medal in 2005, his double gold star (50 years’ service) and a Queen’s Service Medal in 2009, and a Kiwibank Local Hero’s Award in 2010.
He held the CFO job until 2013.
Robertson says the work’s been rewarding – there’s “great satisfaction” when things go right, but he’s had his fair share of sleepless nights when they haven’t.
“You’d go away from something and you would wonder ‘hell, have I done everything?’, particularly when you couldn’t find what the problem was.”
He comes from a long line of local legends – his great-grandfather was Queenstown’s first mayor, his adopted grandfather, ‘Captain Jack’, was one of the first captains of the TSS Earnslaw, and his father was the town clerk from the mid-1940s till 1956.
But Robertson doesn’t see that he’s stamped his own mark on the town’s history.
“I’ve just done it.
“I know it is a long period of time, but it went very quickly and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being a member but … it’s like everything, isn’t it?
“You have to give it away eventually.”
When asked what he’ll do with his spare time, there’s a chuckle before he quips: “I haven’t got any.
“I seem to be busier than ever.”
Fire station fix
Queenstown’s fire station’s about to get a revamp.
Chief fire officer Andrew Bary says the volunteer fire crew moved out of the station, on the corner of Isle Street and Robins Road, on Monday night.
For the next nine months or so it’ll operate from Portacoms and containers at the rear of the site while contractors overhaul the station proper.
Part of the work’s seismic strengthening, to bring it up to the new building standard, but it’ll also ensure the building’s up to scratch in terms of health and safety, particularly around handling of contaminated gear.
“It’s quite a major logistical exercise … we’re still operational from the site,” Bary says.
Contractors will fence the building off this week to start the project – the target completion date is next July.
Until April 1974, when the station opened on that site, the brigade operated for more than 100 years on the corner of Shotover and Brecon Streets.
Fire Emergency New Zealand is leading and funding the project.