Australia and New Zealand Territory Manager Mel Hagedorn explores the transformative experience of volunteering in conversation with Engagement Manager and volunteer firefighter Katie Toohey.
This year, Bang the Table implemented a global Volunteer Program that is available to all of our staff members. Our intention is that our staff get involved in giving back to – and supporting – the communities that impact their lives. At the same time, Bang the Table recognises that, in participating in these activities, it enriches their lives, provides for upskilling opportunities, and creates a great sense of purpose.
Our Engagement Manager, Katie Toohey, recently took up the opportunity to access the volunteer program to go on deployment with her crew to the catastrophic fires in Tenterfield, Northern NSW in September this year, and then again recently when bushfires started a lot closer to home in the Blue Mountains, NSW.
I recently sat down with Katie to ask her a few questions about her experience.
MH: Why did you join the Rural Fire Service as a volunteer firefighter?
KT: My father was a volunteer with the Linden Rural Fire Brigade. As a way to remember him I joined the Linden Brigade when I moved back to the Blue Mountains two years ago. It has been so lovely to meet people my dad used to fight fires with and hear their stories.
I also wanted to give back to my community and living in the Blue Mountains we face a lot of bush fire risk, so it seemed like a valuable space to volunteer in. And, I’ve always wanted to ride in a fire truck!
What did it take to qualify as a volunteer firefighter?
We did three months of training drills, an online course and a practical training exercise where we were assessed on our capabilities and skills. The qualification is called ‘Bush Firefighter’ or BF – which you need before you can attend an incident with the brigade. But there are many volunteers who do non-firefighting roles like communications, catering, and support.
We are also buddied up with experienced firefighters for six months as a probationary firefighter.
We do weekly training and do monthly daytime drills to ensure we are all experienced, trained and prepared for a variety of fire fighting conditions.
My favourite part of the training was developing a friendship with Georgia, another young woman who was training for her BF in my Brigade – we had a lot of fun, studied together and supported each other on and off the fireground. In a male-dominated service, I’m lucky to have strong female colleagues in my Brigade, including Georgia and Suzanne, who is one of our Deputy Captains and a great mentor.
Why are you passionate about firefighting?
I love the camaraderie of firefighting. I also love that we work with a diverse range of volunteers and I get to work with people I would not normally associate with.
We also get to do something so meaningful to protect our communities. There is something deeply humbling about working with a crew to save somebody’s home and property. It is both an honour and a big responsibility to be at the end of a line of hose, knocking down flames that are threatening your neighbours house or a farmer’s shed, or a school, etc.
What is the most rewarding experience from the Tenterfield Deployment?
We were deployed to the Drake Fire and were actively involved in fighting the firefront impacting properties, homes and the Drake township. We engaged in property protection- setting up to defend homes against the impacting firefront; preventative back-burning to stop the firefront advancing on properties; and blacking out the fire to ensure it did not restart after it had gone through a property.
Knowing that we were actively involved in keeping people’s homes, property and livestock safe was by far the most rewarding experience.
I also learnt more in those five days, than I had in the preceding 18 months. It was both an education and the formation of life-long friendships with an incredible bunch of people. I have since used those skills and worked with those people on a number of active fires and incidents.
Why do you do this? How does it make you feel?
I do this because it is a way to be connected to my community and to feel like I am able to give back in a meaningful and significant way.
I grew up in the Blue Mountains and was an active member of a number of youth advocacy and volunteer groups. I was supported by my community a lot as a young person, so it is great to be able to give back as an adult.
I also love working with a crew of firefighters doing physical work. As a remote home-office worker, this is a welcome change of scene and completely different. It keeps me active and grounded in my community.
What have you learnt from this experience?
The value of a wet nappy! Seriously – we use P2 dust masks in the RFS but they are not very effective when in heavy and thick smoke. A wet cloth nappy folded and tied around your face is much more effective in keeping you comfortable and able to breathe!
I have learnt that I am stronger and more fearless than I thought I would be in the face of serious fire conditions.
Would you do it again?
Absolutely! In fact, a few months after the Tenterfield deployment a fire started in the valley next to my home. I saw the fire start while on a meeting with my colleague Joe; 10 minutes later I was evacuating, and an hour later I was in my neighbours’ backyard fighting the firefront and stopping it from burning down my neighbours house.
It was an intense experience fighting a fire that was threatening my home and my neighbours homes. It took us over a week to fully put it out as it was burning in old trees and logs, and the swamp / peat moss was burning beneath the ground for days afterwards. We have been lucky to have cooler weather and some rain to finally put out the last of that fire.
A week after that experience we were called to fight the Gospers Mountain fire which to date has burned nearly 200,000 hectares of bush and farmland to the north west of Sydney, and it is still burning. We are looking at a bad fire season ahead and are likely to be called out to other fires before the fire season finishes in April-May 2020.
Would you recommend joining the RFS – tips for those considering it?
Most definitely – it is challenging, rewarding and meaningful work. You are well equipped and well-trained, so you are never put in a position that you cannot manage.
You don’t have to fight fires to volunteer, there are community engagement roles, communications (radio and electronic call out systems), catering and crew support, and office roles as well.
I am the community engagement officer for our Brigade (of course!) and manage our social media, community engagement events and work with other CE officers across the Mountains to prepare our communities for the fire season. I love that my skills from Bang the Table are transferable to my work with the RFS.
Thank you, Katie, for taking up this opportunity, especially as this article goes live, there are countless fires threatening homes, livestock and animals across Australia.