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Earlier this year Australia suffered from the terrible bushfires burning across the country. Our volunteer firefighters gave up their time and put their lives at risk to help to protect the lives of all those around them. One of these volunteer firefighters was our very own Catherine Baker, from our Forster Branch. We asked Catherine some questions about what is was like for her during that time, being out on the frontline and protecting her community.

What is your role with the RFS and why did you decide to join?

I am a current member of Tuncurry Rural Fire Brigade and hold the positions of Deputy Captain (lead crews operationally on the fire ground) and Secretary. I am also a member of the Mid Coast Aviation Brigade as part of the Districts Remote Area Firefighting Team (RAFT) and hold the position of District RAFT Coordinator. This involves liaising with Specialist Operations in Sydney and local District staff for all things Remote Area Firefighting.

I joined as a result of both my parents being members of the local Brigade and spending a lot of time there while they filled their commitments.

How long have you been a volunteer with the RFS for?

I joined the Rural Fire Service (RFS), Pacific Palms Brigade in 1994 when I was 12 years old.

What do you enjoy about being a volunteer?

‘The places you go, and the people you meet’ is what I tell anyone that will listen. So many times I have been able to go somewhere I would never ordinarily go or see something that I wouldn’t normally get to see. All of our training and equipment is provided and the people are great.

How do you balance volunteering with your role at NPBS?

I started with NPBS in January 2019 as a part-time employee at the Forster Branch. Being part-time, I am able to balance my work life with volunteering and family life much more easily than if I were full time.

If I’m not working, and all the kids are where they need to be and my husband is home, I’m able to attend Fire Calls as the brigade is paged. Aside from the callout portion of being a volunteer firefighter, I also attend the station for regular training sessions, monthly brigade meetings (secretary duties), and complete the paperwork, often late at night when the kids are in bed.

What impact does volunteering have on the community?

Volunteering makes the world go round. There is only so much money for paid firefighters, so we cover that gap.There is no difference between us and Surf Life Savers on the beaches, or the Salvation Army with their programs or any other volunteer organisation.

Can you explain what it was like volunteering during the recent and devastating bushfires?

It was like nothing I had ever seen before. Each morning the crew headed to the fire station at the designated time, arriving early to put ice in the esky’s and make sure we had some snacks for the day.

Tuncurry Brigade from mid-October manned both our fire trucks and fire boat every day, with some night shifts as well, for 54 days straight. It was a monumental effort from a group of very dedicated individuals.

Fire behaviour and general weather conditions were extreme at best. There was thick smoke in the air even when you weren’t close to the fire(s) - there was no reprieve. For each tasking we received, we did what we could before the next request for assistance came through. We were receiving so many taskings each day we lost count.

Aside from the actual firefighting, each vehicle is replenished each day. This included making sure there were new batteries for the radios, drinking water for the next crew, clean hoses, any used equipment was restocked, and the cabins were cleaned out. Crews needed to be organised for each day, ensuring fatigue is being managed and adequate rest breaks are being taken.

Aside from this, I needed to manage my work commitments and I was also able to take short notice leave to continue my firefighting efforts as the fires impacted our town and surrounding areas. In my 26 year career in the RFS, Newcastle Permanent is my first employer to actively encourage me to be a volunteer fire fighter.

How is the community recovering?

There have been many shows of appreciation from local members of the community to our brigade and others. With other organisations, like Blaze Aid, coming in to support the efforts to restore normality and rebuilding.

What recommendations would you make for ways people can help the community recover?

Sometimes it can be as simple as checking on a mate, checking in on a neighbour, and asking if they’re okay. Speaking out if you need help. Remember, it’s okay not to be okay. Once we can get-out-and-about following the COVID-19 pandemic, I encourage you to visit areas previously affected by the bushfires. These communities, like drought affected communities, need visitor traffic through their towns, making purchases in their shops etc.

RFS volunteer
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