Neil Hamilton is the Pastor at Beachlands Baptist Church. He is also a recipient of an Honorary Chaplain’s medal from the United Fire Brigades’ Association. This is his story.

How did you get involved with the Fire Service?

I have been with the Beachlands Volunteer Fire Brigade for the past nine years. Part of my rationale for joining the fire brigade was to support my strategy of becoming the best community pastor I could be. My rank is qualified firefighter. In other words, I am one of the grunters that sit in the back seat when we go to a job and I’m given instructions by the officers—which is a nice change from running a church! 

You must deal with some terrible situations

Whenever the alarm goes off, we never actually get to do anything very nice. I said this to someone recently and they said, “What about the cat up a tree?” Listen, we have rescued a cat out of a roof, and it scratched our arms and faces! But seriously, firefighters usually only get ‘responded’ to traumatic jobs. We see sights that most people should never see. 

The incidence of trauma is getting worse. In the last few years, the New Zealand Fire Service signed a MOU with St John that sees us co-respondent to all ‘code purples’, which are respiratory arrests, suicides and heart attacks. In South Auckland, we are the most respondent code purple area in New Zealand.  

St John signed the same MOU with some states in Australia a few years back before New Zealand did, and the recorded rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has increased exponentially in Australia. 

Tell us about your award

Observing the effect of PTSD on firefighters led me down a path of exploring what ways trauma can be intervened among emergency response personnel. I’ve attended a critical incident training course with Crisis Intervention and Management Australasia, and I have done some working groups in crisis intervention. I am in the process of applying to join the national crisis team.  

The Fire Service, or FENZ as we call it today, hasn’t had chaplains for a long time. However, my concern for the welfare of other FENZ personnel contributed to me being awarded the UFBA (United Fire Brigades’ Association) Honorary Chaplain’s medal in September 2017. I’m just the sixth-ever New Zealand recipient of this award, so I am honoured to receive it, and I am proud of the story behind it.  

On the strength of this, the South Auckland district area commander asked me to prepare a document of services I could provide to the 20 permanent and volunteer stations under his command. Three aspects of service I have proposed include: 

  • assisting in a welfare capacity at the scene of an incident
  • facilitating debriefing sessions at fire stations after particularly traumatic jobs
  • being available to officiate at special functions, e.g. weddings, funerals and honour ceremonies for FENZ personnel.

I call myself the ‘fire padre’ because I want to communicate that I am among the guys in the trenches, as an operational firefighter. I’m not just some external guy that wants to come in. 

I see chaplaincy at the cutting edge of intervention—a place of being real salt and real light. It really is life and death stuff.