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Participants of WAFA’s team at the Wollongong Miss Muddy event in 2015.

Women and Firefighting Australasia 2016: Right place. Right time

In November 2015, during his swearing in ceremony, the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a statement about how his new cabinet ‘Looks like Canada today.’ When asked why was it so important to have a cabinet with a gender balance his reply was succinct: ‘Because it’s 2015’!

As much as that made the world sit up, take notice and praise Trudeau and his new style of inclusive leadership, we had heard this same simple statement a year earlier. At the 2014 Women and Firefighting Australasia Inc. (WAFA) conference held in the ACT, two Fire Service Commissioners made a point during their presentations that they would ‘…put in place measures to ensure parity in the recruitment process for their respective services.’ One could be forgiven for thinking that that’s nothing new. ‘We’ve heard it all before.’ It’s to be expected: the head of an Emergency Services organisation drops in at another Emergency Services conference, looks at the theme and says exactly what the delegates want him to say. End of story!

Not Quite. But let’s see how far we’ve come!

Women and Firefighting Australasia Inc was established as Women in Fire Fighting (Australia) in 2005. In May that year, the inaugural Women in Fire Fighting (WIFF) Forum was held at the Holiday Inn at Sydney Airport to celebrate a century of Australian female fire-fighting and to broach issues often considered but seldom publicly discussed: Fire Service diversity and inclusion. The convenor of that event was Dr Merilyn Childs, who currently maintains one of the most important digital archives relating to diversity in fire-fighting in Australia and is a life member of WAFA. It must have been challenging for Merilyn to pull together enough delegates to discuss their passion for fire-fighting, the historical significance of the occasion, as well as what the future had in store for the women who would follow in the footsteps of Australia’s pioneering female fire-fighters, the Amazons 1901-1903 and the Women’s Fire Auxiliary 1941-1945.

Typical of forums of this type, one of the features of WIFF 2005 was the keynote presentations by the then Assistant Commissioner of the NSW Rural Fire Service, Mark Crosweller AFSM and Pru Goward, in her capacity as Sex Discrimination Commissioner at that time. Pru’s rally cry, ‘Firing Up Women’ pulled no punches as she made the case for the need for ‘diversity and inclusion’ in the emergency management sector and made it clear that if you can get gender inclusion right, then the rest would follow.

Galvanised by the combination of historical sentiment, good will and opportunity to network and share stories with colleagues who, although coming from a myriad of settings, share a passion for fire-fighting, plans for the 2006 Women In Fire Fighting Conference commenced.

A rural female firefighter mopping up after a bushfire. WAFA promotes firefighting as a viable career or volunteer choice for women.

A rural female firefighter mopping up after a bushfire. WAFA promotes firefighting as a viable career or volunteer choice for women.

Over the course of the last decade WAFA has morphed into a significant point of contact for emergency services organisations that want to strengthen their particular recruitment and inclusion strategies. Each of WAFA’s biennial conferences has been themed to encapsulate their vision, which is to ‘Promote and Celebrate Women in Firefighting’. Conferences have been held in Sydney in 2006, Victoria’s Yarra Valley in 2010, Adelaide in 2012, Canberra in 2014, and the latest in Brisbane in August 2016. Speakers at WAFA conferences range from Human Rights Commissioners to Fire Service Commissioners and every rank and role throughout member organisations. Keynote presentations are delivered by a variety of supporters, with an emphasis on positivity, empowerment and motivation.

In 2014 WAFA incorporated a Hands On Training (HOT) component to the conference program, affording delegates an experience to develop skillsets and discover equipment they may not have encountered previously. These sessions included large animal rescue, road crash rescue techniques, urban search and rescue, live fire exercises, and manual handling and lifting techniques.

The journey between 2006 and 2016 was by no means smooth, but the spirit of the mission of the collective has definitely remained consistent. WAFA (WIFF) is about celebrating the many facets that women bring to the Fire Fighting sector, in all of their diverse forms. WAFA’s focus has never been an industrial one. The focus is on leadership, healthy fellowship, operational and non-operational decision-making, ethics, human rights, personal and crew accountability, and family. This is regardless of rank or role, employment status and organisational affiliation. Members are volunteer and career, operational and corporate, strategists, researchers, and land management, forestry, and air services personnel. They come from our capital cities and our remote and rural country towns. WAFA members are from every State and Territory in Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and Samoa, and as far as the UK and USA. WAFA membership is not gender exclusive and is truly diverse.

Is there any more satisfying an occupation than that of the public servant who is trained with the skillsets that enable them to protect those most vulnerable in our communities in an emergency: the Police Officers, Ambulance Paramedics and Firefighters? These three occupations are the most commonly referred to and recognisable as our front line emergency responders, but there are others who do laudable and vital emergency response, but they don’t feature so readily in our children’s books, television and movie screens, and popular media. Of these three roles, parents and teachers (and peers) are least likely to talk about Firefighting as a career path for a woman, and it’s 2016!

The ‘pointy end’ of emergency response is where the attention of the public is so often drawn. Our televisions, cinemas and newspapers are awash with stories and images of bravery in the line of duty and social media enables us to have a front row seat wherever we are. And if you’re in the wrong place (sic) at the right time, you can film it, which will make you part of it.

What makes Trudeau’s statement even more poignant is that the public still unconsciously apply gender-based stereotypes to these roles, which shape who they expect to see in these roles. Archaic attitudes adhering to perceived gender norms regarding firefighting can be dispelled just as easily as they were regarding politics. We start with a simple statement and follow on with actions that are universally fair, contemporary, respectful, and inclusive. This is essentially what WAFA works to promote.

Contemporary Fire Services empower communities with the knowledge and wherewithal to establish and maintain their own levels of resilience before, during, and after an emergency, so the role of firefighting agencies is equally as important right across the PPRR or 5R continuum. Agencies should consider the following questions when undertaking future resource planning.

Does building more ‘ready, resilient communities’ mean we are less likely to respond because we have increased the capability of the community to prepare?

Does being less reactive mean that we are more proactive, therefore spending even more time at the prevention end of the continuum?

What is our core business and who are the best people to do it?

Do we look like the communities we are protecting and empowering?

History plays a huge part in the culture of fire services, no matter what part of the globe. We love our milestones, our awards, our heroes and the romance that comes with such an iconised occupation as firefighting.

An urban female firefighterat work in her station.

An urban female firefighterat work in her station.

In an AFAC Statement on Workforce Diversity on International Women’s Day in 2016, member agencies acknowledged:

‘The unacceptably low levels of diversity, particularly in urban fire and rescue services, and approaching International Women’s Day on 8 March 2016, AFAC Council has identified changes required to increase attraction, recruitment, and inclusion levels across gender, racial, and cultural diversity.’

  • AFAC CEOs, Commissioners, Chief Officers and Fire Managers went on to say that they:
  • Commit to diversity strategies that will not result in a lowering or compromising of performance or safety.
  • Acknowledge that in order to build a more diverse workforce, strategies are needed to achieve a critical mass from varied backgrounds and genders.
  • Acknowledge that without positive actions that are proactively implemented by industry leaders, there will be negligible progress.
  • Agree to improve the internal cultures and behaviours within our organisations to be more supportive and inclusive of a more diverse group of people.
  • Commit to understanding unconscious bias and addressing this within agencies.
  • Commit to cooperatively developing and sharing best practice strategies to increase diversity.
  • Task the Workforce Management Group with developing recommendations and commit to reviewing issues of diversity twice yearly when meeting as AFAC Council.

AFAC’s statement on ‘Workforce Diversity’ is by far the most supportive endorsement of the vision of Women and Firefighting Australasia by the national council and peak body for Australasian fire, land management and emergency services. It is further reinforced by the sentiments of the leadership of authority members, acknowledging that AFAC:

“Welcome that diversity is a key theme of the annual AFAC Conference for the second successive year in 2016, and that it is being held in partnership with ‘Women and Firefighting Australasia Inc.’.”

As for the Commissioners who pre-empted Trudeau’s earth shattering declaration of the ‘bleeding obvious,’ they’ve displayed resolve in what they consider to be the fairest and most equitable way forward for their organisations. They do this not just because it was expected and anticipated by those who heard it, but because they believe it’s good for the future and culture of the sector.

For more information, go to www.wafa.asn.au

This article was written by
Ange Pestell
Ange Pestell
 Steve O'Malley
 Steve O’Malley ASFM


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