Firefighters takes an unflinching look at what it means to do the highly dangerous job of saving lives from fire. It is drawn from interviews with over 50 firefighters-from the new recruit on the station house floor to the area director managing thousands of hectares of regional Queensland. Together, the firies recount their personal experiences, including the rigorous recruit training and selection program, the demanding rescue of motor accident victims, and the extinguishing of house and building fires-caused by arsonists, gas explosions or simply the careless dropping of a cigarette.
Often dealing with the traumatic losses of lives, homes and worldly possessions, these men and women face peril on a daily basis. This book tells of the professionalism, courage and dedication of the firefighters who place their lives on the line every time the alarm bell rings.
CHRISTMAS 2001 BUSHFIRE APPEAL FUND
Allen + Unwin will donate $1 to the Christmas 2001 Bushfire Appeal Fund for every copy of Firefighters sold.
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The Men and Women Who Risk Their Lives to Save Ours
By Gary McKay
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2002 Gary McKay
All rights reserved.
A big red truck thundering down a road with lights flashing and sirens wailing is what most people imagine when they think of firefighters. But a lot has happened behind the scenes in the past twenty years or so. Vehicles, protective clothing and firefighting appliances and equipment have improved enormously. Even work roles have changed dramatically in the last decade, with more and more rescues now being undertaken by firefighters rather than by tow-truck drivers or ambulance personnel. In the old days, though, firemen attended fires — full stop. Russell Mayne, a veteran of those days, says: 'You never went out of the station unless you had a fire call.' And Toowoomba's Vince Hinder, a firie for 25 years, recalls the times when he first rode on the trucks:
Years ago we wore a blue woollen coat, blue drill trousers, elastic-sided boots and a helmet — and that was it. It used to be bad in the old days when we could go as fast as we wanted, and on the old Bedfords we'd be hanging off the back of the open wheelers, trying to crank up the Coventry Climax auxiliary engine for the water pump. We'd be hanging on to the grab rails rocketing around the place. Workplace Health and Safety would have had a fit if they'd seen what we were doing! These days we have to abide by the speed limits and stop at red lights.
Today the firefighters are dressed in two layers of clothing and sometimes three. They have special protective coats, helmets with a visor and flash hood, and gloves and boots that can withstand enormous heat. While there are not so many big fires these days, the nature of fires has changed greatly with the heavy use of plastics in our everyday lives. The fire ground is now more toxic. As Senior Firefighter Hinder puts it: 'In the old days we only put BA [breathing apparatus] sets on if the station officer thought it was bad enough. We would be spitting black stuff up out of our lungs for weeks after a fire. These days as soon as there is smoke the BA set goes on.'
And although firefighters have to abide by the road rules and this might slow them down to a certain degree on the way to a fire, it protects them and the public. Several people have lost their lives in Queensland when 10-tonne fire trucks and cars have collided. Vince Hinder reckons that the scariest part of his job is 'some of the drivers we have got on shift!'. Nonetheless, for Station Officer Pat Hopper, who joined the fire brigade in Cairns in 1973, going off to a fire 'was exciting, something I had never done — riding fire engines with big bells, on open-wheelers, and wearing nice tailor-made clothes'.
But what sort of people should wear those clothes? Station Officer Tom Franks, an instructor on the recruit course I attended, says:
I want a bloke with discipline, someone that will do as he is told and also be respectful. He has to be loyal, have a bit of intestinal fortitude and be reliable. If I am off somewhere trying to get information about whether there is a rescue requirement, I want to know that they are ready to go while I'm away. A firefighter has got to have initiative, be a team player and be decisive.
Throughout my travels in Queensland, I asked the same question of people who have been firefighters for over twenty years and would have seen many firies come and go during that time. The responses were varied but followed a common thread. Area Director Ray Eustace in Maryborough thinks it's important that a firie 'be personable and get on with people, get his work done, not be lazy ... the better ones are tradespeople, especially when using rescue tools'. He also prefers people with 'some life skills and who are stable'. Many people told me that younger firies seem to be less suitable in terms of fitting in with crews. It was important to have 'someone who can get along; a team player with a sense of humour'. High academic achievement was not seen as important. Vince Hinder says: 'One bloke doesn't know everything, but between us we know a lot. I want a bloke you can trust, a team man, who won't turn tail and leave you.'
Fred Heiniger joined the fire brigade in 1973. He recalls that the chief officer would 'know the recruits' character', as most applicants were locals. But he adds:
You need a bloke who is mature, who has been around a bit. Today there is a lot of study involved and it requires dedication. You need 'hands on' guys, teamwork is important and an individualist is not going to get on. If you are not a team player then you're not worth two bob. If you can't cop a kick in the guts occasionally, then you are not worth two bob either, because you're going to get them from the job you go to — or just from things that happen. You need a sense of humour.
A lot of the more senior officers and firefighters worry about the current selection process. The waiting list to become a firefighter is huge and in 1999 only about 200 were selected out of 5000 or so who applied. Many who came in were academically bright, but that does not necessarily translate into being a good firefighter on the fire ground. Dick Gledhill, who served in two armies and is a senior firefighter in Townsville, was critical of the apparent emphasis in the selection process: 'Too many academics in the officers lacked CDF [common sense] and ended up hopeless on the fire ground.' Station Officer Jack Wensley of Toowoomba agrees: 'We have gone too far and overstepped the mark with academic requirements.' Graham Cooke, an area director at Dalby, says that it's fine to have firies with a good academic record, 'but also common sense and a level of practical quality is required'. Barry Salway at Nambour station comments: 'The academics aren't that good, but we still need some to move through and become officers.'
What was unsaid was that the men in uniform want more of their own officers in positions of management in their corporate head office at Kedron Park.
Much of the criticism of the promotion process, which is now based on qualifications rather than length of experience, is centred on the fact that 'in five years a bloke can be an officer in charge of a crew at a major incident and that is not good. Many of the younger officers lack respect for the older firies and their knowledge'. In a fire crew of an officer and three firefighters ('one and three') there can sometimes be more than 50 or 60 years of experience travelling in the front of the truck. No two incidents are ever the same and the vast experience base, I was told, should be used to advantage instead of relying solely on learning from books. Station Officer Pat Hopper of Cairns was outspoken on the issue of officers rising through the ranks too quickly. 'These days we are getting intellectuals who don't want to get their hands dirty, but want to be an officer tomorrow. It's a mistake and I don't like it.' Senior Firefighter Russell Mayne adds:
I have worked with blokes over the years who couldn't string a sentence together but made the best firemen and were just unbelievable blokes. Other guys, who have got up to be officers with all the knowledge in the world, you wouldn't want them to blow out a match!
But, in the main, aspiring firefighters have their wings clipped by the older, wiser and highly experienced firefighters as they move through the ranks. Most appreciate the experience around them and the wise officer will always look to his team for advice and opinion before making a decision in a tricky situation. As one 30-year man, Station Officer Trevor Kidd of Rockhampton, explains, 'It is a four-man crew' — and someone in the team will have the right answer. The firies on shift are a close-knit bunch. No one is allowed to get a big head or to rise too far above the rest of the crew in terms of recognition. Consequently any praise is usually faint, and criticism is prolonged and loud if anyone makes a slight error in judgement. It's all in good fun and chiacking is prevalent on shift. Russell Mayne explains:
You have to have a thick skin because there are certainly a lot of blokes gibing each other around the station and I have seen guys just fall apart under that. It is just part of the fire service. I don't think we are supposed to do it because we have to be politically correct and all that, but it is still there.
Teamwork is essential in firefighting because very few jobs can be done single-handed — safely. Russell adds: 'You have got to be a team player, you're a part of a team. If you want to be a one-off man then you shouldn't be here.'
Few firefighters think that a firie has to be a particularly courageous person. The courage a fire crew show comes from the teamwork they display and their willingness to take calculated risks without endangering themselves or their mates. Senior Firefighter Wayne McLennan of Townsville prefers someone who is prepared to listen, to take things on board. He says that a firie does not especially have to be 'super-physical', because a mix of 'sizes' is good for various jobs. He adds: 'You don't have to be courageous. It's better not to be foolhardy and risk making mistakes.' In other words, don't rush in. Look, assess and then decide on a course of action.
Many firies want someone alongside them who is observant, switched on and, in Station Officer Kevin Neilsen's words, 'someone with honesty, physical ability, integrity and a stand-out personality'. He has to be able to think for himself and show some initiative.
Barry Salway sums things up:
A firefighter has to be community-minded because the community are our employers and they are paying a fire levy. I believe it is a young person's job, and you have to be physically active. Age 55 is the time to retire. Late inductees are no use because you don't get the benefit out of them. It's a big investment to train people because you don't stop training. You learn something every day, you're always learning. Every job you go to is different, every incident is different, every person you talk to is different and everyone has different ideas. It is a constant learning curve from day one until retirement.
The Queensland Fire and Rescue Service is a State Government body and part of Queensland's Department of Emergency Services structure. The Service is responsible for the protection of people, property and the environment from fire and chemical incidents, and (in conjunction with other agencies like the State Emergency Service) for the rescue of people trapped in vehicles or buildings or caught up in other emergencies. More than 2200 full-time or permanent firefighters, 1800 part-time auxiliaries and staff, and about 45 000 Rural Fire Service volunteers make up the operational staff of the Service. They protect a population of over 3.5 million Queenslanders living in urban, semirural and rural communities.
QFRS firefighters in the financial year 1999 — 2000 responded to 50 425 callouts — a record. This meant that across the State a fire truck went out through a station house door once every five minutes of every day. But almost half (23 700) of the callouts were false alarms or unfounded incidents, the majority of which were due to avoidable inappropriate workplace practices or to faulty equipment. During the same period fire crews responded to 14 233 fires and 6426 rescues and other medical emergencies.
The management and administration of the Service works through a system of devolved control in eight regions. The regions are shown in Appendix 2. Far Northern Region extends from Cairns through to the tip of Cape York. Northern Region extends from Townsville to the Northern Territory border. Central Region is vast and runs from Rockhampton to the southwestern border with NSW and the NT. North Coast Region covers the Bundaberg, Maryborough and coastal districts as far south as Caloundra on the Sunshine Coast. Southwestern Region is based in Toowoomba and extends to the NSW border past Dalby, Roma and Charleville. Brisbane North Region is small but covers the densely populated areas of the Brisbane CBD and northern suburbs to Caboolture. Brisbane South Region extends from the CBD and south side of the Brisbane River down to the Logan River. Southeastern Region is based in Beenleigh and covers the area from Ipswich South to the Gold Coast down to the Tweed River and NSW border.
The QFRS is the largest fire authority in the nation. It came into existence after all the independent and local Fire Brigade Boards, numbering some 81, were amalgamated into the Queensland Fire Service in 1990. Until then the fighting of fires was a local issue. Firies were recruited by the local chief fire officer, who normally had a deputy. The firefighters were the chief 's total responsibility — for wages, promotion, training and welfare. The Fire Brigade Boards were run along municipal lines and the revenue to pay firefighters and maintain their equipment came from insurance companies (five-sevenths), from local government (one-seventh) and from State Government (one-seventh) until 1984/85 when the urban fire levy system was introduced.
In the Brigade Board days, would-be firefighters were usually well known to the chief or his deputy and often family ties provided more of a leg in to the service than the quality of applicant. The standard of firefighting expertise varied greatly from one area to another and promotion was slow — if not stagnant — especially in smaller regions. There was little exchange of information on techniques unless a firefighter moved from one area to another and was able to join another brigade. Pay was minimal; discipline was autocratic and extremely strict, with junior firies 'not saying shit for sixpence', as one retired firefighter recalls. The fire stations had to maintain their own buildings and equipment before the amalgamation and, in many locations, had to build their own fire appliances, such as pumper trucks, and keep them serviceable. Consequently most firefighters were tradespeople, especially plumbers, fitters, carpenters and welders. In Toowoomba, Bob Buckley remembers that the Toowoomba Fire Brigade Board 'built their own fire engines for years' and the chief officer liked to recruit ex-service personnel as they were used to discipline and doing 'what they were told'.
The firefighters have a union to look after their concerns in the workplace and one of the things that the firies like about it is that the station officers are part of the same union. At one time, officers were in a different union from those they led at the fire ground, and animosity developed in some areas, as Russell Mayne of Noosa station explains: There used to be a terrible ... call it discrimination, I suppose: sort of a 'them and us'. Before, we had the United Firefighters Union for the firemen. Then there was the Fire Officers Association and the Metropolitan Fire Officers Association and the senior officers had their own thing. The senior officers have still got their own association, but the officers are now with us. Up to the rank of station officer we are all in the United Firefighters Union. It's good to have the officers in the same union.
There are about seven unions in the QFRS altogether. The other unions include those for clerks, metalworkers, bootmakers and so on, and might only have a few members from the Service. They are mostly ancillary people who work in the QFRS Stores Section and maintenance and support areas. But the three main unions are the United Firefighters Union (UFU), the Senior Officers Association (SOA) and the Queensland Public Services Union.
Neil Smith is a station officer who has become active in the UFU because of his time as a junior firefighter. He feels that before amalgamation of the Boards the 'playing field' was a little bit more than uneven. He says: 'I have always fought for fairness and equity and as long as it is fair for everybody, and nobody gets hard done by in any way shape or form, then I am happy.' For Neil, along with a fellow station officer of Roma Street, Alan Beauchamp, it is about looking at working conditions and pay. But Neil adds:
We also look at workplace health and safety. I try to get involved in grievances and if there's a problem I aim to get involved in it early with the big boss. We have a good rapport and I try to get in early and talk it out — get through the process earlier before getting to a written grievance.
The UFU is not what could be termed 'a militant union'. Its leaders had been through a pretty hard Enterprise Partnership Agreement in 2000 and were just signing off on it when this book was being researched. The QFRS has had some fairly tough times recently, mainly with its budget. Neil Smith says: 'Everybody in the organisation has constraints on them and, although the unions would like certain things done, they also understand that our bosses are constrained by money. So in the union we try to fight for the best we can get for the dollar we have got.' He goes on:
Our area director here [Caloundra] Bob Kettle, is an excellent manager and does all our budgeting. We always have input into the budgeting. That has always been a standard thing in the Fire Service: put it down to the boys first and let them work out what they want, get prices for it, put it together and then submit it to the area director. He will then look at it and if he feels it's a really worthwhile cause they will go to bat for it. And normally we'll get it — under capital. A lot of things we don't get because some of them are a bit airy-fairy. But the Fire Service generally has a good system that way.
Excerpted from Firefighters by Gary McKay. Copyright © 2002 Gary McKay. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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Table of Contents
1 The firies,
2 Recruit training,
3 On the job,
4 The auxiliaries,
5 The rural fire service,
8 A day in the life of an urban firefighter,
9 The regionals,
12 Courage under fire,
Appendix 1: The enemy,
Appendix 2: Qfrs regions,
Notes and sources,