VETERAN firefighter Ron Harley has marked 60 years’ of service, first on the front line defending lives and property and then behind the scenes fighting to save the Old Perth Fire Station museum from demolition.
Mr Harley, 86, left Highgate secondary school at 14 and worked as a milkman, carpenter and whale flenser before joining the brigade in 1961.
“I decided to make a career of the brigade,” he says, “to become an officer one day.”
Mr Harley made station officer in 1966. He was a reformer, improving station designs, fixing training standards and compiling the first brigade training manual for firefighters to study. By 1984 he was superintendent of planning and training.
From early in his career Mr Harley had an eye for history, and he’s a key reason the DFES Education and Heritage Centre in the Old Perth Fire Station building is still around today.
As old copper and brass gear was being phased out for modern equipment, he began preserving items.
“I said ‘we’ve got to save the old stuff for future generations’,” he recalls. His collection grew with brass helmets, heavy coats, and even a rare La France Turn Table Ladder firefighting vehicle he found on a property out in Jarrahdale in 1978.
The gear didn’t yet have a permanent home, but in 1983 he got wind of a plan to demolish the recently-shuttered Old Perth Fire Station at 26 Murray Street, built in 1901 and decommissioned in 1979.
Unbeknownst to his chiefs, Mr Harley set up a temporary display of his collection in the dormant building.
When newly minted premier Brian Burke opened the new station nearby, Mr Harley led him away from official proceedings to give him a tour of the old station and let him know about the top brass’s plans to demolish it.
“I approached [Mr Burke] and told him of my concerns, and that the station was historic and should become a museum of fire artifacts,” Mr Harley.
After “15 minutes”, Mr Harley says, the premier was convinced and promised to preserve the gear and building, by turning it into a museum. The Burke government funded a restoration and opened the “Fire Education Centre” in 1985.
Mr Harley says without Mr Burke, “this wouldn’t be here now, no doubt about it”.
The restoration was extensive: When the station opened in 1901 it was made to fit three horse-drawn appliances. Bits and pieces were knocked out over the decades to fit ever-larger trucks. Columns, mouldings and original doors were re-fitted, and a limestone arch which had disappeared was reconstructed.
Mr Harley says the top brass never forgave him for going over their heads to the premier, and while he suspects it stymied his career he says it was worth it to preserve the building.
He retired in 1994, but soon after returned to the Fire Education Centre. Tens of thousands of visitors go through every year, including many school trips, and it was state heritage-listed in 2008.
Mr Harley’s still there every Thursday, and the history bug runs in the blood: Grandson Reece Harley runs the Museum of Perth in the historic Atlas Building on The Esplanade