Our People: It was the fire truck that got him

HELPING HAND: Rolleston's chief fire officer Nigel Lilley has volunteered for the brigade for 20 years.

Rolleston chief fire officer Nigel Lilley talks to Emily O’Connell about his role, why he joined the brigade and what his most memorable call out has been.

When did you join the brigade?

March 3, 1998.

Why did you join?

I’ve always wanted to from childhood.

Did you have any family members or people you
knew who were part of the brigade?

Not really. Rolleston back then was a small community so everyone knew everyone.

What about the brigade initially interested you?

The fire truck, I suppose.

How did you feel when you attended your first call-out and what was it?

It was a medical incident. I was extremely nervous as I had no idea what to do. I can’t remember what happened to be honest, it wouldn’t have been a serious one or I would have remembered.

What type of training did you get before joining the brigade?

None. We learnt as went.

When did that change?

Not long after I joined, to be fair.

What has been the most memorable call-out you’ve been to and why?

A fatal car v train on a Christmas Eve. There was a huge teddy bear on the back seat. I knew some kid wasn’t getting that for Christmas, I also knew that he also wasn’t getting his father for Christmas.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learnt through being in the brigade?

Embrace your team. Be proud of them. I can’t do it without them.

What’s the most dangerous thing you’ve done in the brigade?

I’d have to say probably some of the larger vegetation fires pose significant danger to us, not that we take risks.

What would be the happiest memory you’ve had during your time in the brigade?

I spent eight or nine years on the board of the United Fire Brigades’ Association which is like the national collective for pretty much every firefighter. As a part of that, I was the chair of the challenges committee which involved the governance and running of all the fire competitions, like the drivers challenge, the road crash rescue challenge and the toughest firefighter challenge. That was hugely satisfying and did get a lot of stuff across the line with them, because all the volunteers are funded along to them, it’s a great reward for them.

Is the Rolleston Volunteer Fire Brigade still the biggest brigade?

Certainly one of. It has 40 at present, with a huge waiting list.

What do you think makes it so popular?

The population of Rolleston and we always get a big influx of people asking about joining after a big event like the Port Hills fire or something like that, something that’s really been in the public space. Certainly after the earthquakes there were a lot of people who emailed.

How many call-outs do the Rolleston volunteers go to on average per year?

On average 650, I guess. It’s a lot more than when I first joined, it was only about 100.

Do you think the call-outs will keep increasing in the future?

No, it’s flattened out now. It’s not really the population that’s driving it because new houses have safer building codes so they don’t catch fire. Motor vehicle accidents are increasing slightly, that’s just because of more traffic, I guess.

Your wife, Sarah, is also part of the brigade. Is that how you met her?

No, I met her in the pub.

What did you do for work after finishing high school?

I worked at Placemakers and Transport Wholesale Ltd.

What do you think the future of the Rolleston Volunteer Fire Brigade will be like?

I don’t know, there is land over by the new ambulance station. We’re certainly in a plan for a new station. When it became Fire and Emergency New Zealand from the old fire service it changed and it’s changed for the better, especially for the volunteers.

Do you have any fears, considering what you do?

I’d have to say no because when it all happens and the adrenalin kicks in, you don’t really think about that sort of stuff until well afterwards and then you think: ‘What the hell did I do that for?’

When do you think you’ll leave the brigade?

I hope to be there for a while longer but I won’t be the chief forever, I want to hand that over to someone else to have a go at. No idea when.

Have you always lived in Rolleston?


What schools did you go to?

I went to Rolleston School and St Thomas of Canterbury College.

When you’re not working, what does a day off look like for you?

I couldn’t tell you the last
time that happened. If I’m
not working I’m tied up with some sort of fire and emergency event.

What are some of your hobbies?

I really don’t have the time to have any, sadly.

Is being the chief fire officer your full-time job?

No, it’s voluntary.

Other than volunteering, what else do you have going

I’ve now taken over the Rolleston Dairy, and rebranded it as an On The Spot franchise store. I also work two days a week in Wellington for Fire and Emergency New Zealand on a new volunteer initiative.

When did you take over the dairy?

January 22.

How’s it been going?


What have you learnt from owning the dairy, had you owned one before?

No, but look, it’s hospitality
in a sense and I’ve been doing that for 20 years at the pub.
It’s just all about customer service.

Was the pub you worked at The Rolly Inn?

Yes, I was there for 20 years.

What was your job at The Rolly Inn?

The manager.

Can you tell me about your role at the Wellington for Fire and Emergency New Zealand?

It’s a new initiative, I’m the product or business owner if you like, that’s what they call it. It’s a computer-based system, an availability system, so the volunteers know at any time
who is around and who is
able to respond. It’s all done through apps on your phone and GPS.

How long have you been doing that for?

Only a month, so far.

How are you finding it?

Fantastic. Just being able to create something that’s going
to make the volunteers’ lives easier, it’s great. It’s only meant to be for six months but I can see it going for a whole lot longer than that.