Volunteer firefighting: more than just fighting fires

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A CFA tanker awaits the next emergency. Henry Ballard

In an ironic twist for Victoria’s Country Fire Authority (CFA), a lack of yearly major fires has contributed to periodic falls in volunteer numbers.

CFA executive director of volunteers and strategy, Supplied by: John Haynes

John Haynes, the CFA’s executive director of volunteers and strategy, said the issue with firefighting is the general public see it as a seasonal pastime.

“(After the) Gippsland fire, the Bunyip fire, we’ll have an influx of volunteers because they see it on tele, they see it’s exciting,” Haynes said. 

“The thing is about keeping them enthused, because we don’t have major fires every year. So, what’s their role in day-to-day firefighting?”

The Laughing Fox Cafe. Henry Ballard

Rachael Murray, of the Laughing Fox Café in Emerald, displays donation tins on her counter for the CFA and State Emergency Service (SES) and testified to the public’s reactive behaviour towards emergency services.

“We tend to find that people who have family members in the CFA or who have been affected by fires … need to benefit from it first. Then they go ‘oh now I’m aware of it,’ and then they donate.”

Due to the public’s reactive attitude to fire and fire services, Haynes said that fostering a sense of community in fire brigades is pivotal in retaining any new recruits following the fire season.

“It’s really just about setting a place that’s welcoming for people to want to come.

“There’s a lot of family tradition (in fire brigades) … just like a footy club.”

The Captain of the CFA’s Clematis brigade, Jarryd Miller, exemplifies this tradition.

Clematis Fire Brigade. Henry Ballard

Since joining the CFA aged 11 under his father’s captaincy, Miller has risen to be captain himself.

And while Miller exemplifies the sense of community Haynes said was important, he disagreed with Haynes’ comment that overall “volunteer numbers haven’t actually changed much”.

“There’s been a huge drop in the amount of volunteers over the last few years, a lot more than there has been previously,” Miller said.

Haynes, who oversees Victoria’s 1200 brigades, said such a misinformed belief could come from any number of factors.

“At any one time we have ups and downs (in volunteer numbers), it can be simply from a district looking at records and updating them.”

Miller said public disinterest in the CFA is linked to frequent public squabbles among authorities and government.

“It’s been a bit hard to recruit over the last few years because the fire services haven’t been painted in a very good picture in the media.

“It just makes it a little bit hard when people hear ‘CFA’ in the media all the time.”

Murray, meanwhile, said she is often ensuring no customer at her café leaves with the wrong idea about the CFA.

“These guys are volunteers, they’re getting up in the middle of the night, they’re inconveniencing their families, they’re missing work.”

And to anyone who insults the efforts of the volunteers or their ability to turn out for fires, she says, “How dare you be so ungrateful when these guys don’t get anything back for it?”

 

Support the CFA: https://www.cfa.vic.gov.au/about/supporting-cfa

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