Life as a volunteer firefighter

Posted by Dale Stephens on 17 March 2011 | 0 Comments

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My name is Dale and I am a volunteer firefighter at Montrose Fire Brigade. Areas within our community range from a mountainous National Park, urban fringe dwellings, more compact urban homes, and small to large industrial sites. I have been a CFA member since mid 2008.

I want to share with you an insight of what it's like to be a volunteer firefighter. It's not only restricted to fighting summer bushfires. But is more of a year round and wide ranging role that for some, influences the very way they lead their lives.

We respond to a wide range of emergency incidents within our community. They include bushfires, home and factory fires, chemical spills (HAZMAT incidents), motor vehicle accidents and more. We also perform a number of non-emergency roles such as delivering education programs to schools and other community groups. Along with that is performing regular maintenance on our fire station, vehicles and equipment and various fundraising events to help us provide for some of our equipment. We train every Tuesday night and Sunday morning, and also attend formal training courses within and outside these times. For senior brigade members it involves more.

Sounds like a lot of work doesn't it? So why did I volunteer for that? When I joined, like most of us I did so because I thought it would be exciting. And sometimes it is. But there are so many other positives that come out of it for me. But I'll get back to those.

Volunteer firefighters are notified of emergency incidents via a pager service. Most volunteers carry their pagers with them... all the time. The pager can alarm at any time 24/7 and it is our responsibility to attend if we can. Sometimes work or family commitments mean we are unable to, but if we can we do. Sometimes this can mean the pager sounding in the middle of the night. Sometimes just as we've sat down to dinner. Sometimes when we're in the shower. It can happen at any time. When it does, our 100% volunteer fire station has a responsibility to have at least 1 appliance out the door within 4 minutes. And then on scene within another 8 minutes. Just think about that for a moment. This can mean 4 minutes to wake up, get out of the house (or work), get to the fire station, get kitted up in our firefighting gear, and organise ourselves on the truck and out the door... bright-eyed and bushy-tailed ready to respond. Not much time is it? So how do we do that?

For some of us it means organizing our lives in such a manner as to respond quickly and efficiently. Let me tell you a story about one of my colleagues. Rob owns and runs a butcher shop within our community. He lives 2 minutes from his shop and 2 minutes from the fire station. Rob grew up in the area and feels deeply about his community. He's been a brigade member for decades. Rob regularly attends firecalls, and also contributes heavily in a senior CFA role outside our brigade. All as a volunteer. For him (beyond his home life) this means organizing his business in such a way as to allow it to function when he leaves in a hurry to attend calls. Sure... Rob's business could benefit without those interruptions. It no doubt costs him money. But I've never heard him complain once. Clearly he feels deeply about what he does and enjoys doing it.

 

For me, organising my life has different implications. My family now knows that I can zoom out the door at any time, with only the voicing of the word "firecall" on the way out. I may be home in 30 minutes. Maybe in several hours. And on very rare occasions maybe days. I work around 200 metres from the fire station. Fortunately for me my employer (who is also a brigade member) accommodates my role as much as he can. Sometimes we're out on the road and are not in a position to respond. But sometimes we are on the business premises and the work day can be interrupted at any moment by voicing of the word "firecall" on the way out the door. This costs me money too. Not as much as Rob, but when I leave for a firecall I stop being paid of course. Clearly I feel deeply about what I do and enjoy doing it.

So back to the question... Why did I volunteer for that? At the time I thought it would be exciting. But pretty soon I discovered it was much more. I spent the first 6 months being trained and learning lots of aspects about fire behaviour and suppression. This science of it was really interesting. Then I started to discover that the CFA has a habit of attracting really good people. And if you surround yourself with good people often enough sooner or later some of it rubs off onto you. This was a pleasant but unexpected surprise.

Then sometimes it's rewarding trusting your life to someone and not doubting them for a second. My most recent experience of that was attending a house fire. Four of us on the first truck out the door. Our crew leader was Rob from the story above. We arrive on scene and the house was engulfed in fire. Rob says "Dave and Dale, BA". This means that Dave and I had to put our Breathing Apparatus on and most likely enter the house to (possibly) look for people, and attack the fire.

Is my BA going to work and help keep me safe? Of course, we test it at least weekly and I trust my colleagues to do it well. I don't doubt it for a second. Dave enters the house first, and I closely follow. The house is on fire in several rooms, and looking through what's left of the ceiling I can see the roof is on fire too. Almost straight away I see power lines dangling... and I wonder if the power is turned off. Straight away I think it is, Rob would've made sure of that. As Dave and I continue, pieces of ceiling and roof structure are falling on us, as well as a lot of water. Some of the water from us, and I guess some of it from people attacking the fire from outside. It's hot, and the steam from water hitting the fire makes it hard to see. Am I worried? Not for a second. It's all about trusting your training, trusting your colleagues and trusting yourself. I felt we were in control the whole time. Looking back at it that's fantastic isn't it? Here we are in a burning house, and the trust I have in Dave, Rob and everyone else is seeing me through the experience having total faith in all of them.

Dave and I exit the house when we are nearly out of air. When we walk outside another colleague stops by to help us out of our gear. Nobody had to ask her. She just did. That's what we do.

I have a drink at look back at the scene. The fire is mostly out, and fellow firefighters are finishing off the last of it. I see the homeowner and wonder about them and what they'll do now. That part never gets easier. I'll go home and have a shower and have some dinner. Kiss the kids good night and continue on with my life. The people who lived in that house had one of the worst days of their life. At least nobody lost a life or was hurt.

So I think I've learnt a lot in a short time in the CFA. I've learnt trust in people that I never knew. I learnt that there are many people all around us who are better than we'll ever know. I've reminded myself that my wife has enormous coping skills and strength.

So far it's been so much more than I thought. So much better... and for reasons that I never dreamt of before, so much more rewarding.

And I've become a better person. That's the best bit.

 

Dale Stephens

Volunteer Firefighter

Montrose Fire Brigade