Hayley Elg* says women are taking the lead in encouraging women to volunteer for frontline roles with Victoria’s Country Fire Authority.
In an organisation that was traditionally a boys’ club, a group of women in Victoria’s District 15 are proving they are just as capable to give back to their communities as their male counterparts.
In the past, female involvement within the State’s Country Fire Authority (CFA) was restricted to making sandwiches and cups of tea for men who went out to fight fires, but now, many women are also crawling from their beds in the middle of the night to jump into a fire truck and respond to an emergency.
While the numbers of volunteer firefighters have been steadily declining in Victoria in recent years, in the past decade, the growth of female involvement within the CFA has grown.
Currently 23 per cent of volunteers across the CFA are female, while 15 per cent of the organisation’s volunteer firefighters are women.
While this still seems relatively small, the organisation has a Statewide target to increase the participation of female firefighters and female leaders by 5 per cent.
To assist with increasing female involvement and to encourage women to take up leadership positions, a group of a dozen women in District 15 recently founded a Women’s Reference Group.
They hope that if females see others leading change, it will break down barriers in an organisation that is already in the midst of considerable change, with the move towards paid firefighters becoming Fire Rescue Victoria.
“Our aim is to increase the percentage of women volunteers, but also to increase the percentage of women in leadership positions,” Margret Lockwood, chair of the District 15 Women’s Reference Group said.
The group has representation on the district planning committee as well as its subcommittees, so female volunteers have input into the likes of how firefighters train.
Across Victoria similar women’s networks have been established to create a place for women to connect and discuss challenges and opportunities for change and improvement to the experiences of women within the CFA.
Why are women choosing to join the CFA?
While some brigades are still conservative, many women are supported as volunteer firefighters.
“I love being active and going out on to the fire ground,” Ms Lockwood said.
“What I really enjoy is the camaraderie and just being out there.”
“Achieving a task and getting a good result by working hard with other people.”
“And knowing you’ve done something good for your community.”
Daylesford Fire Brigade’s Kayla Manning joined on her sixteenth birthday.
Her father was third lieutenant at the time and, growing up around the fire station, she always knew she wanted to join.
“I never had a female role model or anything like that but was still pretty keen to join and turn out and fight fires,” Ms Manning said.
She said joining the CFA had made her more confident as a person and she had learnt many skills applicable to life outside the fire station.
Meanwhile, Indre Kisonas joined Daylesford Fire Brigade a year ago after the shock of the Hepburn fire, when flames licked so close to the township that many realised how such incidents could so easily impact a community.
While her initial reservations were that it would be too physically demanding, she was inspired by Margret to join.
A number of initiatives are being undertaken to encourage more young people and women to join.
Since joining, all of the women have travelled around the State as part of strike teams, including most recently to East Gippsland, and all believe it has been a fantastic way to connect to their communities, lend a helping hand and make new friends.
What are the challenges?
In addition to the challenges all CFA volunteer firefighters face, such as having to leave work at the drop of a hat to fight a fire or respond to a car accident, there are other challenges specific to women.
These include the perception that women are weaker or less capable, uniforms that don’t fit properly and not having easy access to toilet facilities when at an incident for a significant time.
While there is often the misconception that a person needs to be extremely fit and strong to be a firefighter, as long as training is attended regularly and the person utilises the correct techniques, with the addition of new technology that is making the job easier for firefighters, everybody is able to try their hand at it.
“Being volunteers, we are such a diverse range and we all bring different abilities,” Ms Manning said.
“So, we all are all different heights, weights and have different strengths but we can all have a crack at it.”
While still relatively new, the women’s group has been involved in various initiatives including a Women in the West practical training day at Longerenong Training Campus near Horsham last year, at which women trained with other women.
A Women’s Burn Camp at Cape Clear, so women get experience with fighting live fire, driving tankers and burning off, is also coming up.
It is also looking at a rotating childcare initiative, so parents who want to join have more flexibility.
While the CFA recently brought in women’s pants, for Ms Kisonas, her ultimate goal is to get boots and helmets specific to women’s sizing.
* Hayley Elg is a reporter at The Ballarat Courier. She tweets at @hayleyelg.
This article first appeared at www.thecourier.com.au.