Interview: Newtown Fire Station Officer, Matt Murphy

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How long have you been working at the Newtown Fire Station and what is your role at the station?
I started my career as a fireman in Newtown in 1987. It was a pretty wild place for a naïve suburban kid but I loved it and moved to the area in the early 90s. I got transferred  to Ashfield two years later for a bit, then 11 years at Leichhardt. After I became an officer I applied for Newtown or a neighbouring station and was surprised to be offered the post in 2005 as station officer, which is the role I still hold.

The Newtown Fire station recently celebrated their 100 year birthday. How have things changed at the station over that time?
The station did celebrate its centenary in April, but it was really only a centenary of the building. Newtown has had a fire service since 1872. Initially the fire station consisted of a shed where the Hub now stands, then moved to where the railway station now is and then moved again to its current spot in 1892. In that same year it changed from being a volunteer station to being permanently manned. The station proved too small and a new one was built in 1913/4.

The biggest changes would all be related to technology. The early brigades relied on horse driven vehicles and steam driven water pumps. And of course our uniforms are much safer in extreme conditions than they used to be. We also have breathing apparatus so we can breathe in smokey or dangerous conditions. In the past the only form of breathing protection they had was their long beard which they soaked in water and then put in their mouth!

How big is the Newtown Fire Station team and what area does the Newtown Fire Station cover?
Newtown Fire Station consists of 4 crews, each consisting of 1 officer and 3 crew members. An additional officer and firefighter are also attached to each crew to cover for illnesses or leave both at Newtown and surrounding stations.

Newtown Fire Station’s administrative area extends from the university to Marrickville Metro and from Maccas on Parramatta Rd to Erskineville rail station, though we often attend calls in neighbouring areas and if required for a large blaze can go anywhere. Last October we were heavily involved in the bushfires in the Blue Mountains.

What services does the Newtown Fire Station provide the area (other than the obvious life saving fire related ones)?
Apart from fires, we also attend rescue incidents and emergencies related to hazardous materials such as fuel or chemical spills. Additionally, we are involved in a lot of preventative work including checking hydrants, inspecting buildings, and giving talks to community groups and schools. We also run a program whereby we change smoke alarm batteries twice yearly for the local elderly.

I can imagine you would have some interesting stories about different jobs you have been called out on. What has been the strangest situation you have found yourself in?
There have been too many to discuss here, but a while ago we were surprised to be called to a snake in a house in Erskineville. I never thought that being stationed in the inner west I would ever radio in requesting the attendance of a snake handler.

When I was first stationed at Newtown in the 80s, the brickpits down near St Peters was turned into a dump then incinerated and later the area was turfed and turned into Sydney Park as we know it. But unbeknownst to anyone, the tip fire was still smouldering underground. People sitting on the grass and picnic blankets were getting burnt as flames shot out of cracks in the ground.

Again in the 80s, we had an old woman come to the station asking if we would help her get into her flat as she was locked out. As a fireman climbed the ladder to an open window he yelled back down to us that it was the wrong window as there was a man in there. The old woman said, ‘Yes, that’s my husband, he won’t let me in.’

And we get calls to birds in trees, always a curious one. I know a few years ago Crows Nest Fire Brigade got called to a seal stuck in a tree at Taronga Zoo. They have the call out sheet proudly displayed on their wall.

closedThere has been recent talk of government budget cuts impacting several fire stations in Sydney. Has this impacted the Newtown Fire Station?
Yes, we are neck and neck with Neutral Bay for being the most closed station in Sydney. Of the 14 shifts per week (7 days and 7 nights) we are generally shut at least one shift per week. In 2013 we were shut 58 times. The locals that know about it are rightly appalled. We are trying to get more people aware of it. Its ridiculous that Marrickville Council and home owners through their insurance pay for a service they are not receiving.

You recently installed a board out the front of the station which has received attention on social media including our “I love the Inner West” page. What was the idea behind the board?
There was no ‘idea’ behind the board, all stations either have them or are getting them. Ours was installed about the same time as the now famous buffalo chasing incident happened. We had a bit of fun with the sign then, and it got some attention so we kept it up, mainly with fire safety messages but with a twist to attract attention. A big part of our job is fire awareness and fire safety so we are glad of the attention the sign has received.

newtown fire station mardi grasDo you think the Newtown Fire Station might start its own Facebook page?
We know other stations have, but its not something we have contemplated.

How has Newtown changed since you have been working at the fire station?
There have been heaps of changes since I was stationed here in the late 80s. Some better, some worse. There were lots of squatters and derelict houses back then, but everything has been gentrified to within an inch of its life now. I suppose you can say it is a ‘safer’ place now, but at what cost? It is still the best place in Sydney to live and work; I’m pretty lucky.

Following the famous quote “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life”, why do you love what you do so much?
I feel very lucky to be a firey, it is truly a wonderful job. Its very personally rewarding and people are generally appreciative of your efforts. Its also great to have kids drop into the station or visit schools and just be considered part of the community.

Its also great that it is a job in which we are encouraged to keep fit and have an active and healthy lifestyle, and we have a pretty good gym at work that we are encouraged to use.

Finish this sentence: I Love the Inner West because….
It would be easy to say because of its quirky shops, restaurants, bars and nightlife and while this is true the reason its true is because of the people that live here and want these kind of places. Inner westies are interesting and interested people; they have their finger on the pulse of current events, they have a social conscience and open to new ideas.

Best place for a caffeine hit in the Inner West? 
I am one of the handful of inner westies that doesn’t drink coffee but my crew, who have tried most in Newtown, reckon Cafe Newtown on the corner of King and Enmore Roads is the pick of the bunch.

What/where was the last great meal you ate in the Inner West? 
At work we often get a lot of takeway and our regular favourite is Beach Burrito next to the Hub. Sometimes we also go to the wonderful Faheems on Enmore Road or for authentic Kebab go to Rowda Ya Habibi up the top of King Street.

What’s the Inner West’s best kept secret?
My publisher would hate it if I didn’t plug my book about the history of Newtown called Weight of Evidence. Copies available direct from me for $5 less than retail by emailing weightofevidence@hotmail.com.

Other than that I often like to venture into Retro on Regent (68 May Street) for their range of funky 50s, 60s and 70s furnishings and bric-a-brac. Its amazing what they dig up.

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