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Interview: firefighter Nick Penfold

Flagstaff Team

Nick Penfold
Trucking on… Firefighting has fulfilled Nick Penfold’s passion for helping others

After 31 years in the fire service, Nick Penfold has a wealth of stories about risky moments on the job, and knows well the importance of spreading safety messages to younger generations. He talks to Helen Vause.

Known to children across the North Shore as ‘Fireman Nick’, Hauraki’s Nick Penfold is well aware of the value of spreading fire-safety messages to younger generations through his school visits.

And it appears the children are often taking this information back to their parents.

“We know children will often go home and ask to talk about an emergency action plan, for example, after one of our visits.”

But acting as an educator at the front of a classroom seems far removed from the dangerous firefighting job that after 31 years Penfold knows so well.

No two work days are the same for a fireman and he has had his share of scrapes.

“Once while we were fighting a fire in a factory full of fireworks, the fireworks were exploding out of the door. It was so hot it melted the tops of our helmets.

“Then there was a fire at a gun club, where we had to take cover from the exploding ammunition. Once at a large two-storey warehouse fire that was spreading into the second floor, I was sent up the stairs to cut the fire off. The floor caved in and my legs ended up hanging into the floor below, which was on fire, and I was off work for three months with the injuries.”

“Another standout memory is a factory fire in Otara. There were explosions inside, and a fire cylinder punched right through the wall of the building and blasted into the side of our fire truck. Some of the guys were standing right alongside the truck at the time.”

The young Nick Penfold was a talented sportsman and a drummer – but had passion for helping others.

Altruism turned out to have the stronger pull, although it took him a while to find his way to where he wanted to be.

At just 20 years old, Penfold began his working life as a policeman, based in Whangarei, where there was plenty of action for a fit and keen young cop.

But he quickly worked out it wasn’t the life for him. His year as a cop brought him into close contact with the local fire service, however, and he liked what he saw of them and their interactions with people. He figured that was what he wanted to do instead.

“Everyone loves a fireman. It’s really true,” Penfold says with a laugh, recalling how he quit the police force and began the slow process of signing up to be a firefighter.

After his unhappy stint in law enforcement, he took off round the South Island for time out to contemplate his future. But it wasn’t long before his basketball talents had him playing for a team based in Nelson.

Nelson became his temporary home and the place where the 31-year story of ‘Fireman Nick’ began.

Though Penfold was accepted into the service, there was a frustrating months-long wait before a job came up at Mt Wellington Fire Station. The basketball had to be dropped for a while, and Penfold was off to start his career in Auckland.

“It was a fantastic start. And while of course having lots of fires is not what we want, it was a brilliant time to be new to the job and training because there were so many fires back in those days. I learnt so much, so fast.

“It was 1988. There were so many more old buildings and there were fires in them. Schools, factories and old buildings with no alarms and none of the features newer buildings have today. And the public then were not as well educated about fire prevention as they are today.

“Today we may not be seeing so many of those types of fires, but smoke is now the killer. Modern furnishings are full of carcinogens and they get into everything. The old woods didn’t give off the same terrible chemicals.”

Firefighters change out of their protective suits before leaving the fire scene, but Penfold says it’s now known that carcinogens can penetrate the suits.

“It’s believed to be why so many firemen are getting cancer, and there is a lot of research work going into those suits right now,” he says.

“But the smoke and those carcinogens have changed the picture. The grim fact of the matter is that someone dragged out of a fire back in the 80s would have had a better chance of surviving than someone dragged out these days – because of what they’ve been exposed to.”

In 2001, a little over a decade into his career, Penfold became Station Officer at Devonport, and stayed in that role until 2011. With his wife Sarah and his then young family, he moved into the neighbourhood and began a long-running commitment to voluntary work with kids in the community.

“It was a brilliant time to be new to the job and training because there were so many fires back in those days. I learnt so much, so fast.”

As a fireman, Penfold worked shifts and had many free daytime hours. He chose to use that time helping at Belmont Primary School, and later at Belmont Intermediate. The joke was that he should have an office at the primary school, he laughs.

As his son Luke (now 20) and daughter Tayla (17) progressed through these schools, Penfold put serious support behind the Waterwise sailing programme for children and coached basketball at both schools. He takes great pride in having been part of the team behind the inaugural Battle of the Schools events at Belmont Primary.

Getting to spend daytime hours with his children as they have grown up has been a terrific upside of being a shift worker, Penfold says.

He loved being a regular parent helper on school camps, and now enjoys contact with children across the North Shore through the school fire-prevention and safety visits he makes.

“It’s great when some kid calls out ‘There’s fireman Nick’.”

These days, he’s based at East Coast Bays as the Station Officer, but was back working in the Devonport area temporarily last month.

His schedule of shifts still rules his life – he works two 10-hour days and two 14-hour nights, followed by four days off.

The passion for the job hasn’t wavered: “It’s all about helping other people, so it is the perfect fit for me.”

The shift-working life has meant sacrificing some of his dreams, and talents.

Penfold is a drummer in the covers band Uncertain Terms. He fits in practice and plays gigs about once a fortnight, but otherwise he finds making commitments outside work and family very difficult.

“I’d love to play more. It is such a terrific release, particularly after a rough week.”

Rough weeks are part of the job and Penfold has had years to learn to manage the mental toll of it.

“Some scenes you can never be prepared for. But my wife Sarah is a big support. She’s an emergency nurse so she knows a fair bit about dealing with awful things at work too.”

Penfold did get back onto the basketball courts in the early 90s in Auckland for a season. But he’s never revisited the promise of his teenage rowing years. He made it to a national squad in 1983, and won rowing titles with his brother.

His time on the water now is taking his boat across to his bach on Rakino with his family for cherished time together.

“And my work family is pretty special, too. They are a cool bunch of guys in the fire service.” Fire prevention is always on their minds. Working smoke alarms are the top tool for saving lives in the event of fire, says Penfold. But paying attention to details around our homes can help prevent fires. Always switch things off at the wall, he says. And never leave anything on charge while you are sleeping.

This article originally appeared in the September 6 edition of the Devonport FlagstaffDownload PDF.