Fire chief Debs takes the helm

New Willowby Fire Station fire chief Debs Stilgoe-Brooker is looking forward to the future.

Long-standing volunteer firefighter Debs Stilgoe-Brooker has taken over the helm at the Willowby Fire Station.

She is one of just a handful of women in a fire chief role South Island-wide, and the first Canterbury-wide.

She draws motivation from being a good role model for her teenage daughters, Penny and Amy, who are also volunteer firies at the station; husband Vaughan is not a firefighter.

Debs is a 21-year veteran and was deputy fire chief.

She was appointed to the top role after applying for the position vacated by Steven Russell. He was at the helm for 28 years.

Steven has stepped back from the role, but remains on crew at the station, Debs said.

In other changes, Johnny White had been appointed deputy fire chief and Todd Smyth ranked an officer.

The changes took effect from July 1 and Debs is more than ready.

She is calm and works well under pressure on the fire ground.

And considers the brigade and its members like an extended family.

The station, formerly known as a rural fire unit, attends mostly vegetation fires (as a natural environment crew) and acts as back up crew during house fires.

They have a fire appliance/ tanker that carries just short of 6000 litres of water and up to six people.

Willowby attended 41 calls last year, many during the peak spring and summer seasons. They cover between the Ashburton and Hinds rivers, with a zig-zag area just over State Highway One and out east to the coast.

Debs started with the station in late 1999, at a time when there were no female firefighters on the force; there are now six at the station, including Penny and Amy.

She lived just 200 metres down the road. The siren went but wasn’t answered, then it went again and Debs thought “I could do that”, so she did.

Debs joined along with neighbour Louisa Russell, the wife of the former fire chief and together they proved themselves to the stalwarts in the brigade.

She proved to be quite good at it too, and turned out to as many fires as she could.

She has also pushed herself to learn, gaining qualifications along the way. And got involved in the station workings. She was secretary for many years and a trustee for around five years.

The new Willowby station office is one of the many benefits to come out of Fire and Emergency New Zealand’s nationwide amalgamation in 2017 of urban and rural fire forces.

The station also has toilets and a 30,000 litre water tank bought with support of businesses in the community.

There were now uniforms to wear for training, and practices and training requirements to meet. There was also more accountability required from volunteers.

The amalgamation has seen more structure involved in being a volunteer, which has its upside, but also put more onerous on volunteers, Debs said.

The station lost a few volunteers during the initial amalgamation, Debs said. But had a steady crew of 20 in place now; 18 operational and two in management support.

They included fathers and sons, husbands and wives, sisters, several sets of brothers, cousins, work colleagues and lifelong friends, she said.

Debs works as South Island manager for MaxCare, and travels to some remote rural communities.

She has the full supportive of the company which has equipped her company vehicle with a defibrillator, a fire extinguisher and first aid kit.

Debs also carries a full firefighter uniform, in case she can help other brigades in action.