THREE of Gunnedah’s long-serving firefighters have reached significant milestones, clocking up more than 100 years of service between them.
Gunnedah Captain Commander Rod Byrnes has been recognised for 36 years in the local brigade, David Moses with 38 years, while Deputy Captain Paul Hartley has just notched up 40 years.
It’s an impressive achievement for these locals, who assist with everything from fighting fires, to vehicle rescues, medical and SES assistance, HAZMAT jobs and educating the public about fire safety.
They all joined as young rookies who learned the ropes on the fire ground – a stark contrast to today’s ongoing training programs.
They joined for the mateship and camaraderie, but the job has turned into something serious where they continually save lives and property, and have become an intergral part of the Gunnedah community.
Times have certainly changed since the three men joined the ranks – in particular the equipment and firefighting techniques.
“There’s been massive changes in equipment,” Commander Byrnes said.
“We’ve got fantastic gear these days. You just don’t feel the heat. If someone put their hand on your uniform, they’d burn their hand – that’s how good it is.
“We got breathing apparatus in 1985. For quite a number of years, we were racing up on roofs and lifting the iron off to let the smoke out so we could go in and fight the fire. Now we can go into the fire.
“The special equipment has made firefighting practices safer and a lot easier.”
Other equipment has helped immensely on the fire ground, including thermal imaging and gas detectors.
For Rod, his role changed in 2000 when he was promoted to captain and commander.
“It changed my role in a big way. Instead of being the do-er and following commands, I had to stand back and give commands and ensure the safety of my firefighters, save lives and save property,” he said.
Paul Hartley remembers the days of wool uniforms and fibreglass hats, but the one incident that stands out in his four-decade firefighting career is the massive Bestcare plant explosion in 2003.
The explosion ripped through a pet food factory on Borthistle Road, completely destroying the plant and causing widespread damage.
The factory was reduced to little more than a smouldering skeleton of twisted metal after the enormous boiler explosion and subsequent fires.
Paul, who drove the fire truck to the factory, was first on the scene.
“It was a fair mess,” he said.
“There were flames everywhere and the boys just got to work.
“It’s probably the biggest fire any of us would see here, but the training and experience kicked in.”
Paul cheekily explains that he joined the Gunnedah brigade because he was taking out the captain’s daughter at the time.
“We parted but I’m still with the brigade,” he said.
He said he enjoys helping the community and being part of a team.
“It’s the calibre of people in that 40 years. Most of the blokes have been great.”
David Moses agrees the Bestcare explosion is the one of the jobs that stands out, along with fires at Stetsons, Retravision and the public school all on the one night.
He said the job required a strong support network, particularly from family.
“When you’re at a kid’s birthday party you may get called away. A lot of family events have been interrupted.”
There are also times when the crew is called away.
“We went across to Dubbo for a HAZMAT job and we were away 50 hours and we only had six hours sleep. We were working and driving the whole time,” David said.
The Gunnedah firefighters also assist with taskforces in emergency situations where they have assisted with the Victorian bushfires, Grafton floods, Sydney hail storm, Newcastle storm and the Pilliga bushfires.
The firefighters may have clocked up 114 years between the three of them, but retirement isn’t in their sights anytime yet.
“I joined the brigade to be with mates and have a bit of fun initially, but I’ve grown to love the comraderie with the guys and the public service,” Commander Byrnes said.
“I enjoy helping the public and I couldn’t see myself not doing it because it’s been a part of my life for 36 years.”