Heading into a fire is nothing like what people see on TV, Sarah Tobin says with a smile, before describing the combination of heat and heavy gear that limits her movement and vision.
“There’s no running and leaping and seeing the flames on the other side of the room,” she adds. “You’re mostly just fumbling in the dark trying to find where the fire actually is.”
About one in 10 of Australia’s full-time firefighters are women, and Tobin is among the thousands of professionals and volunteers now gearing up for what is expected to be a dangerous bushfire season this summer.
Irrespective of the hot, dry El Nino weather conditions set to influence bushfire season, Adam Dewberry, a Fire and Rescue NSW superintendent, says firefighters are ready.
“We get briefings from the Bureau of Meteorology, we prepare, we take note of what their predictions are because that’s the science,” Dewberry says.
“To say ‘are we prepared for a worse summer?’ We are not. We’re always prepared.”
Part of that preparation involves learning from previous bushfire seasons to improve their response.
The 2019-2020 Australian Black Summer provided ample opportunity for changes to be made. More than 400 lives, 3,000 homes and 20 million hectares were lost in the fires, either directly or from long-term effects.
In its aftermath, a Royal Commission offered 80 recommendations surrounding the management of the fires, including increased information about air quality, a National Emergency Management stockpile of supplies and extreme weather projections on local levels.
This will be the second year of the new fire danger rating systems. Updated last year, the signs provide a simpler guide to the consequences if a fire breaks out.
Attention also needed to be given to the physical and mental wellbeing of both Fire and Rescue NSW firefighters and volunteer firefighters with the Rural Fire Service.
A study by Curtin University, which interviewed 4,000 firefighters about their experiences in the Black Summer fires, found approximately a third of volunteers and a quarter of employed firefighters felt their lives were at risk during this period.
This risk was partly physical, including volunteer firefighters not equipped with adequate protective gear.
Tobin recalls volunteers asking for essential equipment like jackets, dust masks and even bottled water.
“‘Can the public drop off some dusk masks from Bunnings?’ This is what was all over social media and the news,” she says.
A note of frustration enters her voice as she tells the story of a Port Kembla man who volunteered for 63 days straight, while Fire and Rescue NSW workers like herself waited to be called in to assist.
“The problem is, people who volunteer are inherently really good people, who will do whatever needs to be done under whatever circumstances … they’re really good people that would just get on with it,” she adds.
However, firefighters need to be cautious, particularly when they have a much higher risk of cancer than the average Australian.
After seeing cancer affect her partner Vanessa, who is also a firefighter, and other close family members and friends, Tobin is very conscious about keeping her gear clean.
Fire and Rescue NSW have an important system of cleaning the firefighters’ coats.
“We get them cleaned after every fire and get all the toxins out, whether it be from a structure fire or grass or bushfire … the laundry actually assess that garment and if it’s no good anymore, it’s just discarded,” Dewberry says.
It is not only physical health that takes a toll in this field. Protecting mental health is equally important.
The Curtin University study suggested early intervention programs to reduce mental health stigmas, regular check-ins with firefighters, rotation systems, scheduled breaks and increased availability of mental health services.
In September, a new law entered Federal Parliament to better facilitate workers’ compensation access for first responders, such as firefighters, with post-traumatic stress disorder.
A range of mental health options exist within Fire and Rescue NSW too, including five psychologists that employees can access.
“Our number one priority is to look after our firefighters,” Dewberry says.
“It may be just peer support, it may be the employment assistance line, it may be going to their GP and getting a mental health plan, but our main priority is to support that and fund that to the best of our ability.”
Tobin commends the services offered by the brigade but believes there is still room to improve. She is very conscious about her own wellbeing, particularly after seeing colleagues face mental health battles.
“I think it’s just a matter of you’ve got to be tuned in ’cause if you just keep ignoring it, that stuff definitely builds up,” she says.
We don’t have as many women as we’d like in the organisation, but we are getting more.
Prior to the fire brigade, Tobin worked in the police force for four years. The differences in the industries are all too familiar.
“Everyone’s happy to see the firies ’cause we always makes things a bit better, but people aren’t always happy to see the police,” she says.
Tobin says she became weighed down by what she saw in her early years in the police, and turned to alcohol for support.
“I would drink to manage unpleasant emotions … [but] at the same time, you dull the really good emotions,” she adds.
Nearly six years later, Tobin is sober and much more aware of her mental health. Her family, including her partner and their triplets, offer great support.
“[Sarah is] someone who maintains her mental health by doing physical activity so she might need some more time to go to the gym or go for a run. We as a family know that she may need a bit more time for herself to decompress,” says partner Vanessa McKellar.
McKellar knows the strains of the job all too well, as a firefighter herself. She was the one who encouraged Tobin to apply to the brigade and “just go in and give it a year”.
Between them, the Illawarra couple have spent 37 years in the field.
While the number of women firefighters in Fire and Rescue NSW is increasing, the organisation remains heavily male dominated.
“We don’t have as many women as we’d like in the organisation, but we are getting more,” Dewberry says.
“It is mainly white men,” Tobin agrees, “but they’re a good bunch and they’re very accepting.”
She believes her father Bill, who is a former firefighter, worried about the culture of the brigade when she first joined 16 years ago.
“He was a firey in the ’70s in London when they had the first four women join the fire brigade and I think he looked back at them and they copped a hard time,” Tobin says.
“I think he was looking back at the experiences of those women and going ‘that’s my baby girl, I don’t want her going into that environment!’ … [but] I think he realised pretty quickly that it’s not like that anymore.”
Though firefighters risk their lives for the community’s safety, they don’t like being called heroes.
“It’s acknowledged and appreciated but I’m sure those firefighters don’t see themselves as that … we’re just there to do a job,” Dewberry says.