It’s September and in Australia it’s National Fire Protection Month. Which means we are in the starting blocks of another Bush Fire Season.
Fire is very much part of our fabric and story, it literally smoulders in our DNA.
In honour of the minority that put their lives on the line for the majority we want to share their human experience. Viewing fire, in its beauty and catastrophe, magnified through the lens of those who prevent it, extinguish it, and keep us calm during times of fear.
It’s not all just about emergency procedures, building codes, legislation and standards. These practical things are birthed from necessity, for the sake of safety, but without the understanding of human behaviour and experience then all we have are numbers and codes.
We are more than that. We are Community. Locally. Globally.
We kick off with an interview with one very special Aussie who was kind enough to share so candidly her experiences of working with the fire industry over a career spanning 30 years.
A true privilege to hear her words.
Q&A with …..Kylie M
Organisations: SACFS (South Australia Country Fire Service) & VIC CFA (Country Fire Authority in the State of Victoria). In addition to these services, Kylie has also some time with ESTA which is an emergency calls operations – serving as a vital link to help coordinate the emergency services within the community.
“I first started as a cadet at 13 years of age. I then held the rank of a Firefighting Officer, then later became a Training Officer and sat on a number of committees within brigades.
Within the services themselves I have been an Operations Centre Officer (OCO), Volunteer Support Officer (VSO), Bushfire Blitz Program Officer, Regional Admin Officer (RAO) – All within the SACFS. I was a Brigade Admin Support Officer (BASO) within the CFA and a 000 call taker for fire (ESTA)”
Q: You have held a few prominent roles with the fire industry, fire fighter to operations centre to aiding volunteers – all of which are different, but which one would you describe as life changing and why?
A: They have all been life changing within their own right.
Firefighting, you see people within a time of need, a time where they need to be helped and there are so many emotions that they deal with.
Whilst as a person that is supporting the volunteers you see the challenges they face and you are there to help them with the tools that they need. My whole time, 30 years within emergency services has been life changing.
Q: What influences your decision making, especially when you are under duress and the minutes count, especially working in an operations centre or facing a fire?
A: Training! I can’t emphasise that enough.
Without my training I would never have gotten where I did nor achieve the things I did and become the person that I am.
Training gives you those tools to be able to make those decision when it matters. It empowers you to make those split second choices, your training develops to be something that you instinctively know and is becomes second nature.
Of course you can’t train for every possible incident because they all come with their own unique set of circumstances, but you have the skills and tools to back your decisions and do the job that is required of you.
Q: Can you describe what the intensity is like when you are coordinating emergency services to assist those on the ground? – the sense of comradery, the emotional side of it etc.
A: On one hand you are like a family. You get to know how each other works and you can, sometimes work without communication.
But on the other hand, you are like a well-oiled team and you all just fit together neatly and it works well.
It does get “full on” and it can get stressful. You can get tired, and the fatigue hits you, especially if it is a long campaign fire. Sometimes emotions get the better of you, especially if things don’t go as you had planned or hoped. But you pick yourself up, dust yourself down and keep going for the people who need you working on the ground.
Q: What is the biggest catastrophe (natural or not) that you have faced when dealing with fire or responding to an emergency?
A: I have attended so many jobs I have lost count.
As a fire firefighter and as a staff member I was there during the Black Christmas fires in Sydney of 2001. I was also part of a team that helped with the Black Saturday fires.
But there are so many other jobs that require a firefighter assistance; flooding, hazardous materials, car accidents, structural fires etc.
There are a couple that stick in my mind, that I can recall vividly. A fatal house fire and a fatal car accident. They will remain with me for the rest of my days.
Q: How did it feel to be in that moment- can you remember your thoughts?
A: The fatal house fire… I was only 18 years old, a few months out of just getting my breathing apparatus qualification.
The call came in, it was 5:45 in the morning and I remember seeing the smoke and flames as we were heading to the fire station.
I was nervous.
As we were pulling out of the station, someone yelled to me that there were reports of 2 people missing and presumed in the house.
Now I was really nervous.
Throughout the whole incident, which took a whole day to complete, I went through a number of emotions.
I remember I felt ill at one stage and had to rest for a little bit, but I was absolutely determined to complete the incident and help where I could.
I was sad and emotional because there were 2 people that had lost their life in the fire. I was even more emotional when I learned that a family member of mine actually knew the young girl who had passed away.
Q: What were the impacts of that event – on you and your community?
A: This incident still impacts me today, some 28 years later. It was a bad one for many reasons, personally and professionally. It is still a hard job to talk about and for me it will be one that will stick with me for the rest of my life.
Community wise, the ripples were felt through many layers - it hit the occupants of the little street very hard.
It hit the disability community hard, as the young girl was a person with a disability and it also hit my family hard, as she was known to some of my family.
Q: What is the best thing about what you do within the fire industry?
A: Without a doubt, the best thing about what I did in the fire industry was assisting people and learning new skills.
I loved helping people and that always brought a sense of joy to me when we would return from a job. Even if it was a traumatic call you would still be able to offer comfort and support where needed.
I have also learnt so many skills that I have used in my everyday life that I would not have discovered if it wasn’t for my time in the fire industry.
Q: You are in the minority as a female firefighter (and I would imagine as an emergency services coordinator) so what attracted you to join? Do you see yourself as an early pioneer or role model for young girls and other women?
A: My dad is a firefighter and has been for as long as I can remember.
I always wanted to be in the police service, until we were visiting my Uncle in Alice Springs and witnessed an event that changed my mind.
I didn’t know what I was going to do for a little while and we were living in New South Wales when I was around 11 years old.
During this time, Dad was going out on the fire truck to go and check on a fire that they had been to the day before and took my next-door neighbour, brother and I with him.
On the way home there was a report of a large scrub fire, so Dad attended, and I vividly remember dad saying:
“You can stay in the truck, or I can take you to the servo and get Mum to take you home.”
I took one look at the flames and said “Go home”.
But I watched from my bedroom window all night until Dad got home and decided, even though I was scared, that was what I wanted to do with my life.
Be a firefighter.
However, in NSW you had to be 18. Not long after that we moved back home to SA and I joined cadets as soon as I could at 13 and the rest, as they say is history.
I don’t see myself as anything special.
I was only one of four women in the brigade back them, the only female cadet. Yes, it was very much a man’s world back then. Did I Struggle with some men? Hell yes I did! That just made me more determined to make it in the world. But I’m nothing special.
Q: If you could go back in time to younger Kylie, what advice and support would you give her as she starts out on this journey again?
A: Nothing – I wouldn’t change any of it. Just embrace what you have to do and let it shape your life. You will hit ups and downs but trust me the ups are way better than the downs.
We thought we would take this opportunity to get to know Kylie not just as a firefighter, but as the person behind all the emergency services expertise…
What’s something you never leave home without?
What is the best sound in the world?
Living rural and relying on the weather, the best sound in the world is rain. I love the sound of rain on a tin roof.