Rise of the female firefighter: Bushfire brigade ranks filling up with women

Rise of the female firefighter: Bushfire brigade ranks filling up with women

 20 October 2017

published by http://www.abc.net.au

AUSTRALIA: Female firefighters across the country are increasingly taking on frontline volunteer roles that were once the sole preserve of men.

Traditionally, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service’s volunteers were drawn from rural landholders with men fighting the fires and women in support roles.

But the service has made a concerted effort to encourage women to take on a broader range of roles, including in rapid aerial response and remote area firefighting, to bolster volunteer numbers.

Females make up about 22 per cent of all the service’s volunteers — a number that is increasing annually — while in the younger cadet cohort, the proportion of females is about 46 per cent.

And on the other side of the country in the south-west corner of Western Australia, volunteer firefighting brigades are being transformed as women swell their ranks and take on leadership roles.

Stephanie Looi is a volunteer with the NSW Rural Fire Service’s Remote Area Firefighting Team.

Even after years of winching out of helicopters to fight bushfires in remote terrain, Ms Looi said she still felt anxious and a “little bit sick” as the aircraft drew closer to a fire.

“There is anxiety, I suppose, because you’ve been flying in a helicopter for 30 or 40 minutes,” Ms Looi said.

“Then you get there and it’s hot and it’s windy and you are looking at this fire trying to decide what you can do about it and if you can do anything about it. There’s a lot going through your mind.”

As well as the heat and the nausea — there is also the noise.

Incredibly rewarding

“The rotor blades are thumping and you’ve got that whine of the engines. You can feel it in your chest,” she said.

“We actually have a name for it, it’s called ‘R.I.M.L’ or rotor induced memory loss, because those high frequency tones make you feel a bit anxious.”

Ms Looi said she found firefighting to be incredibly rewarding and would recommend it to other women.

“If you are thinking about joining the service, particularly as a woman, do it,” Ms Looi said

“You are strong enough, you are fit enough, you are tall enough. Just go and try it. There’s a role for everyone. We definitely need more women throughout the service and there’s so many different roles, you can find something that works for you.

“You’ll end up doing things that you never thought you would.”

More than support staff

Ms Looi said women brought a different approach to assessing the dangers of a fire.

“The way we make decisions in life is based on our experiences, so it’s about what you’ve done in the past, what you’ve seen in the past.

“If you have all the same type of person, then you are generally all looking for the same thing, and then things get missed.”

Ms Looi said having a diverse volunteer group, also allowed the fire service to better relate to the community it served and give comfort in a time of need.

Playing a part in protecting the community

In the south-west corner of WA, the region’s unpaid volunteer bush fire brigades are often made up of women who are regularly on the frontline of bushfires.

Glenys Malatesta, captain of the Gelorup volunteer bush fire brigade, joined up after noticing the ranks of the local brigade dwindling during the mining boom as many of the town’s men headed north for mining jobs

“I also wanted to prove that we are the equal of men,” Ms Malatesta said.

“And if there’s something too heavy for us to lift the men will come and help us.

“And vice versa, we’ll help them. That’s how it works because we’re all people.”

Neroli Smith, the First Lieutenant of the Boyanup Bushfire Brigade, had first hand experience of the role the fire brigade played when a bushfire ripped through the family farm.

“The volunteers helped move cattle, they fixed fences when Dad was carted off to hospital with burns from fighting the fire himself.

Fire brigade a family affair

For Terri Kowal, it is also a family affair.

Her husband was the captain of the Bunbury brigade and all of her three children have been volunteers.

After 23 years on the job, Ms Kowal is the captain of the Bunbury Volunteer Bush Fire Brigade where she wants more women to be involved.

She said being a volunteer firefighter took dedication with rigorous training schedules part of the routine.

“That’s important because you really don’t want to get into a truck with someone you haven’t seen (at training) in the last six months,” she said.

“You start to wonder; what are they going to be like when we get out there? Will they know what to do? Will they have my back?

“It’s a big commitment, but I encourage women to not look at it as an impingement on their life, but a really rewarding part of their life.”

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