Porirua firefighters make history with first female officer in 67 years

Margaret Smith is the Porirua Volunteer Fire Brigade's first female officer-in-charge since its establishment in 1950.

Margaret Smith is the Porirua Volunteer Fire Brigade's first female officer-in-charge since its establishment in 1950. - JAMES PAUL/STUFF 


Fresh out of firefighter training, Margaret Smith attended the "horrific" callout that would become the worst of her career.

She had been a member of Porirua's Volunteer Fire Brigade for two months when the crew were called to a house fire.

Two children had died in the flames that swept through the family home.

Margaret Smith, second right, at last year's International Firefighters Day event in Porirua. With her, from left, are ...

Margaret Smith, second right, at last year's International Firefighters Day event in Porirua. With her, from left, are Titahi Bay volunteer firefighter Lee Barrowman, Abbie McKoy from Porirua City Council, and Plimmerton volunteers' chief fire officer Carl Mills. - ABBIE McKOY 


Two decades on, Smith remembers every moment of that day, but she never regretted her decision to join the brigade.

It was a decision that led her to make history in her recent appointment as the brigade's first female officer-in-charge since its establishment 67 years ago.

It was dessert that landed the Porirua East resident in the hot seat.

In the late 1990s, she worked at a local cake shop and would walk the day's leftover sweets to the station down the road.

During one pudding delivery, a firefighter suggested she join the brigade.

"He said I'd be good at it. I didn't know him from a bar of soap, and I told him I wasn't sure. I went home and told my partner,  who said it sounded awesome, so we both joined."

While there might be no more free cake, the new perk is riding shotgun in the fire truck on callouts, leaving the driving for the boys.

Taking the mantle from longtime volunteer and now former officer John Leighton, Smith said her appointment wouldn't change how the brigade operated during callouts.

But she is taking a new hands-on approach by attending as many incidents as she can, whereas Leighton was non-operational and delegated jobs from the station.

"You just get on with the job that you're trained to do. We train to a point that everything you do is muscle memory, so that external factors can be thought about while everything else just happens," she said.

Not much about the job scares Smith but, when asked about what's made her nervous, a transfer of hazardous substances springs to mind.

"I remember thinking, 'Shit, if this thing goes boom and I get hurt, Mum isn't going to be very happy'.

"But it was a passing thought. I can't recall being scared of a job or during one. You've got to do what you've got to do, and think about it afterwards."

JAMES PAUL - Stuff

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