This morning, we in Australia woke up to the news that two firefighters have died. Their truck was hit by a falling tree and rolled, injuring three others. You can read the whole story here.
They were volunteers, members of the Horsely Park rural fire services brigade. I’m deeply saddened by this. Our fire emergency has been going on for weeks. And here in Australia, the vast majority of our rural fire fighters are volunteers. In fact, across Australia, in rural and remote areas, a huge proportion of our emergency services are volunteers.
My husband and I met in the volunteer fire brigade in remote Western Australia. We fought fires, both structural and bush, for years together. We used to joke about ‘romance in breathing apparatus,’ and then had fire trucks as our wedding vehicles. When kids came along, we transferred to the SES (State Emergency Service) which had a slightly slower lead in time, and a special part of the unit whose job was (self described) to look after all the kids of the rest of the unit, and then provide food when we got home. No-one had extended family in the Pilbara mining town we lived in, so this devoted service made it possible for our small town to have an SES who could respond.
We’d get a call: “Cliff rescue on, kids to Amanda,” and we’d quite literally drop our kids off to Amanda with their stuff, and head off to the unit, secure in the knowledge that our kids were in good hands until we got home. And when got home it was to a meal cooked for us by Terri and Amanda.
Our local ambulance service was also staffed by St John’s volunteers. And frequently, all of us volunteers would be at the same emergency situation at the same time.
Last week, our Prime Minister infamously stated “And the fact is these crews, yes, they’re tired, but they also want to be out there defending their communities. And so we do all we can to rotate the shifts to give them those breaks but … in many cases you’ve got to hold them back to make sure they get that rest. And I thank them all for what they’re doing, particularly all those who support them.”
Having been a volunteer, I can agree that volunteers want to do what they do. HOWEVER, there is an extreme caveat to that. Volunteer emergency service personnel are just that – volunteers. They are not paid. They have other jobs which provide their actual income. They need employers who are sympathetic to the job they do as volunteers, and allow them time off for emergency operations. And still pay them and not sack them.
When we volunteer (and I’m going to keep saying ‘we’ as both my husband and I, although not currently emergency services volunteers, both served for fifteen years plus in fire and SES), we expect to be called out.
For a few days here and there.
Sometimes for up to a week.
Maybe two at the most.
And work long, hard hours while we’re operational, in trying conditions.
Volunteers do not expect to work continuously for weeks on end.
And volunteers always plan to come home safe, although they know that what they do at times is risky at best and downright dangerous at others.
And we know this very much first hand.
You see, in 2004, a friend of ours died during a vertical rescue. I was one of the Vertical Rescue Instructors who’d helped to train him, and both my husband and I had rescued together on a number of occasions. We rescued in difficult, narrow, gorge terrain, and on this occasion, a flash flood occurred during a rescue and he was washed away.
We spent years walking, climbing, swimming and rescuing in Karijini National Park, and our last rescue was in August 2002, only a few months before we left town. Every time we walked into a gorge, we would comment on the debris lines, metres above us, think about the weather, and then stick that in the back of our brains. Sometimes we talked about flash floods. Once, we rescued three women stuck on a ledge above rising floodwaters after a flash flood in Joffre Gorge. (There had been no rain in the park.) We knew the risk, just as every emergency services volunteer does, and still goes out to volunteer.
I remember when Jim died. We’d been gone for almost a year and a half off to the other side of Australia. My Mum called us on the landline, and said: “Just heard this on the radio. No details, but there’s been a death during a rescue in Karijini. Thought you’d want to know.”
I remember the sinking feeling. We knew pretty well all the people who would have been involved. Coincidentally, friends of ours who’d also been unit members before moving east were staying with us at the time, and I remember how after we’d rung a friend at SES HQ in the Kimberley, all of us just sitting at the table, still not knowing who it was, and looking around at each other. We were two couples. We knew intimately where all of us would have been if we’d been there. The two men would most likely have been at the bottom of the gorge, providing first aid, reassuring the casualty, and assisting in the packaging and the stretcher. Myself and our other female friend would have been at the top – myself either commanding the rescue or being intimately involved with the raising/lowering, and my friend running all the communications.
And it was devastating. Once the news came through of who it was, there were tears. We rang our friends back in the Pilbara and cried. Unable to attend the funeral/memorial, the best I could do was to write a poem for the eulogy. Even now as I type, I can still feel the grief.
Those volunteers who died last night were fathers, and partners, and sons, and friends, and acquaintances. They were brigade members and comrades, and community members. They were volunteers.
So when I hear our prime minister make comments like: “They want to be there,” and “You have to hold them back,” I feel angry. I also feel angry because he has been out of the country in the midst of one of the biggest national fire emergencies in our recorded history.
Yes, he’s entitled to time off with his family (just as we are), and yes, he’s entitled to leave the country, (just as we are), but his words are hurtful and ignorant. His absence in a time of national emergency is hurtful and ignorant. And all of this from the man who lambasted a police commissioner who went out to dinner during the Black Saturday fires. Timing is everything, Mr Morrison, and you put your hand up for the job, ousting another man. Time to take on the responsibility too.
More importantly, we can all grieve with the families of the two volunteers killed last night. There’s nothing we can do to bring them back, or ease the hurt their families are now feeling. All we can do is remember them.
So, vale Geoffrey Keaton, and Andrew O’Dwyer. There is more still yet to do as the fire emergency continues.