The RFS manages a program of 1800 young firefighters across the state, including six cadet-only brigades. Photo: Nic WalkerBushfires are the perennial feature of an Australian summer; like beach days and hot nights they can become routine, lose their identity, blur into one. But everyone remembers 1994.
Amy Blackwood certainly does. “Dad was away for weeks on end for that one,” she recalls. “He’d go off on a shift in the Blue Mountains for a number of days and then be home for a couple of days before going back again.”
Weeks after the embers had settled, he took Amy for a drive through the blackened aftermath. “As kids we even remember that being unbelievable – the terrain that they were down in to fight these fires,” she says. “It gave [us] a whole appreciation to what we thought of him doing in terms of firefighting at home.”
Amy’s father eventually inspired her – or perhaps more accurately, harangued her – to join the Rural Fire Service as a volunteer. She was 21 and on university holidays back at the family farm just outside Young. The timing was perfect; dad was running a volunteer firefighters’ course. “He basically said to me: you’re coming with me to do your VF.”
Today she oversees the cadets and juniors program for the RFS, a training regime responsible for about 1800 young firefighters across the state. Juniors can join the RFS at age 12; from 16 they can attend fires if they have passed the requisite training and obtain parental consent.
Cadets, in their strict sense, are rare. There are only six standalone cadet brigades throughout NSW, consisting entirely of youngsters – in the Illawarra, St Paul’s, Lake Macquarie, the Blue Mountains, Riverina Highlands and Warringah-Pittwater.
Much more common are juniors interspersed within their local brigades, often gaining experience while training alongside their parents.
Brittany-Jane Williams, 15, joined the RFS the moment she was old enough to be admitted. “My whole family was in it,” she says – and that was literally true. At one point, the family of six were all members of their local Parkes unit, encouraged by their firefighting matriarch Victoria. The 38-year-old is fervent about the importance of getting young people into the service, she says, because they bring new ideas and passion.
“They bring energy to the brigade,” she says. “They bring knowledge as well. They may not think so but they do.”
With urbanisation and the ageing population making their mark on some areas, it’s also a numbers game. “It’s fairly important to have the resources here,” Vicki says. “The older members will get older … you need that generational shift.”
Parkes is the only brigade among 99 in the Mid Lachlan Valley Team with a program for junior members, says superintendent Ken Neville. The team, based in Forbes, is responsible for an area of almost 30,000 square kilometres and a population of 36,000 across the state’s central west. Many landowners are primary producers of wheat, barley or canola, while the mining industry is expanding.
That can pose problems for the RFS, Neville says, because volunteer brigades typically consist of the farmers and families who work the land. “The further west you go, it’s becoming a bit harder to have sufficient number of volunteers on the books,” he says. “At present there’s a lot of properties being sold and being bought out by larger companies, and the properties are becoming bigger, so we’re getting less people living in the area in those western type areas.”
Blackwood acknowledges the problem and concedes numbers “fluctuate”, but says overall interest in joining the RFS has been sustained. The organisation has put more focus on quality training for its new members. “There is an ageing workforce that we’ve got,” she says. “We’re putting a lot more resources and training into our young people.”
In addition to taking on cadet members and juniors, the RFS runs a Secondary Schools Cadet Program to educate year 9 and 10 students about fire safety, life skills and community service. About 6500 high school students have been through the 10-week program since 2005. Participants do not become members of the RFS and the organisation stresses it is not a recruitment drive. “If they decide to volunteer for the RFS after that, that’s fantastic,” Blackwood says.
Cassandra-Jane Williams, 17, has been able to attend fires for a year. In and around Parkes, jobs are typically grassfires or machinery-related, rather than the bush infernos that command headlines in summer. “It was a bit scary, but not a lot happened,” the 17-year-old says of her first callout.
In September, the sisters represented their brigade at the Australian National Fire Cadets Championships in Myuna Bay, south of Newcastle. The biennial boot camp involves two days of competition in which cadets are put through their paces dealing with simulated fires, responding to equipment failure and tackling endurance activities such as canoeing, high ropes and raft-building.
The camp is competitive but being fast is only part of the equation, says RFS events co-ordinator Paul Fowler. “What we’re trying to judge is their ability to work as a team, to work safely and to achieve the desired outcome,” he says.
It’s not only RFS cadets who compete at the championships: the next generation of emergency service workers is represented, too. Aaron McDonald, 14, rotated through SES training during a course he took at Gunnedah TAFE. His class caught the eye of a local commander, who invited them to Myuna Bay.
Aaron says he would consider joining the SES in a couple of years. “They save people’s lives,” he says – though like most country folk, he’s not starry-eyed about local heroes. “It’s just volunteering – doing a good deed.”
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