Firefighters have long been known for their sex appeal thanks to the heroic nature of their work and well cut uniforms.
But when it came to fires women have traditionally been relegated to either damsels in distress or bystanders ogling the men at work.
Now as women increasingly choose to enter NSW Fire and Rescue, the perception of women’s place at a fire has changed dramatically.
One person who has witnessed the change is Wollongong Senior Firefighter Cathryn Dorahy.
‘‘Earlier on you’d arrive at some areas for an automatic fire alarm ... and you’d hear females say ‘oh, who are the fireys?, I love fireys’,’’ she says, referring to the old stereotype of the muscly male firefighter.
‘‘And then I‘d rock up and they’d be like ‘oh, a woman’.’’
More recently, she has received praise from bystanders who have watched her tackle fires with the same gusto as the blokes.
‘‘Women being in the role is good, because it’s changing people’s perspectives and attitudes,’’ she says.
Cathryn began her career in 1987 on Koolan Island, off the coast of Western Australia’s remote Kimberley region, where her husband worked as a surveyor. Because most of the island’s men worked at the local mine, she wasn’t the only female firefighter.
‘‘I was working with four women in that fire service and there were about 10 of us all up,’’ she says.
A 40per cent female brigade might have been unusual during the 1980s, but if the recent Fire and Rescue NSW graduations are anything by which to judge, it’s set to become the norm.
In early September, 10 of the 24 graduates were women.
The record number follows a targeted recruitment campaign last year and NSW Fire and Rescue recruitment and staffing assistant director chief superintendent Craig Brierley was delighted with the response.
‘‘Obviously, we’re going to keep working at it,’’ he says.
‘‘Our aim is to represent the community we serve – all genders and nationalities.’’
Cathryn has become a bit of a poster girl after receiving the Australian Fire Service Medal in June for her work helping predominantly Middle Eastern women overcome cultural boundaries to receive fire-safety messages.
The realisation some immigrants weren’t getting the fire-safety message came during a Berkeley community safety meeting in 2002.
Cathryn says she noticed a group of Islamic women weren’t participating.
‘‘I suggested ... they become involved and they said they didn’t know they could get access to the fire-safety training,’’ she says.
Cathryn spearheaded a program to develop a network of community ambassadors from different ethnic communities to liaise between their communities and the fire service. She is also a foundation member of Women and Firefighting Australia, and has worked as a mentor to dozens of female firefighters, while often recommending changes to improve retention and recruitment practices.
She says much of her work with WFA involves addressing the issue that many women don’t actually know they can become firefighters.
‘‘Surprisingly, there are a lot of people out there who don’t realise women can be involved in a fire agency, whether it’s as a volunteer or a career for them.’’
Oak Flats Rural Fire Service deputy captain Sandra Huer was just 16 when she joined the RFS in her hometown of Braidwood in the Southern Highlands.
After 22 years with the service, she still gets a kick out of watching male truckies do a double take when they see her heading down the highway at the helm of a tanker.
‘‘You see them doing double head snaps as they pass when they realise there’s a chick on the wheel.’’
‘‘I quite enjoy it – you just have a bit of a smile to yourself.’’
The RFS has changed dramatically since Sandra first pulled on her bright yellow uniform.
The daughter of the region’s local fire control officer, she was the only female recruit when she joined in 1991.
‘‘For me it was a very natural progression – it was the norm for my family,’’ she says.
‘‘The difference in country areas is there are different motivations. Most of the time farming people join because ... if something happens they need to look after their property and the neighbour’s property.’’
That affinity with the service has continued throughout Sandra’s life, and in August she was recognised at the Pride of the Illawarra Emergency Services Officers of the Year Awards for helping to develop a firefighting service in Botswana.
There, she encountered more challenges than simply learning to fight fires in a water-scarce environment.
‘‘Firefighting in Africa is quite different; over there there are things like lions and elephants that might get a little territorial and try to eat you,’’ she says.
‘‘We drove upon some elephants and one of them shook his head, put his trunk in the air and got cranky, so we had to back off.’’
During her time in Botswana, Sandra learnt to use tree branches and rubber to smother fires, rather than putting them out with a hose, due to the scarcity of water.
She was also recently recognised for her role in a personal development program for young brigade members who have lost family members in fire operations.
The program involved training young people in basic firefighting duties and culminated in travelling to Papua New Guinea to complete the Kokoda Track.
Sandra says it was one of the toughest experiences of her life.
‘‘It was very rewarding, but physically arduous,’’ she says.
‘‘I think I did it tougher than a lot of guys I was meant to be mentoring.
‘‘I walked away from it thinking ‘you know, if I can do that, I can probably do anything I ever put my mind to’.’’
Sandra says there are about 10 women currently with the 30 strong Oak Flats brigade – a figure of which she is proud.
‘‘It’s a reasonably high number; I think our brigade is a standout on that front,’’ Sandra says.
Recently, four female Corrimal High School students and 11 male students graduated from an RFS school cadets program. Year 10 student Elise Colebrook says the term-long course helped increase her confidence and she intends continuing with the RFS.
‘‘It was something new and I ended up enjoying it.
‘‘It was probably the best thing I’ve done in high school,’’ she says.
Sandra says anatomically speaking, there are some tasks men are naturally better at than women. But she maintains her ‘‘cool, calm and collected’’ nature means she is equally suited to fighting fires.
‘‘I certainly can’t benchpress 100kg, but I can find another way to lift it up if I need to.’’
Like NSW Fire and Rescue, the RFS has an ongoing campaign promoting itself as an organisation that welcomes diversity in its ranks.
Illawarra zone manager Superintendent Richard Cotterill says it’s hard to identify a trend when it comes to girls taking part in the program.
‘‘Last year Dapto High School had 11 females and three males,’’ he says.
‘‘Predominantly more young guys are putting their hands up.
‘‘[But] it’s very encouraging to see how many young ladies participate in that program.’’
Richard says those who chose to become fully-fledged RFS members do so for a variety of reasons.
‘‘Some get a group of friends who want to do it ... overall people get a great sense of satisfaction from volunteering.
‘‘The overall sense of achievement when you’ve genuinely helped someone is quite overwhelming.’’
While some might assume men were naturally more suited to a physically demanding role such as firefighting, Richard says this is not the case.
‘‘In the paddock when you look at firefighters you can’t tell men from women,’’ he says.
‘‘They do the same thing – there is no differentiation, everyone is equal.
‘‘We don’t have male firefighters and female firefighters, we just have firefighters.’’
Sandra says she has rarely encountered sexism in the fire service.
That’s possibly because her male peers remember what happened when someone suggested it was her role as a woman to make the coffee.
‘‘It was more of a stir to find out what bite they’d get,’’ she says.
‘‘I had a few colourful words. It was funny because it was in a group and all the guys went ‘ooh’ and moved away.’’
According to Fire and Rescue NSW, there are 361 women in the service – 144 permanent firefighters and 217 retained firefighters. The figure represents just over 5per cent of the total staff employed with the organisation.
By contrast, women made up 27per cent of the NSW Police Force and about 10per cent of army personnel.
In 1985, Fire and Rescue NSW welcomed two women to its ranks for the first time.
Craig Brierley says since then, it has mostly been a slow process recruiting more.
‘‘We’ve had to overcome the belief it’s a male job and we’re getting better and better at it,’’ he says.
‘‘It’s been something we’ve worked towards.’’
Public servant finds ample time to volunteer
A busy career in the public service hasn’t meant Sandra Huer (pictured above) has had to reduce her commitment to the Rural Fire Service.
In fact, she says working at the Sheriff’s office in jury services afforded her the ability to spend more time volunteering than if she worked in the private sector.
‘‘The Rural Fire Service has benefits because you can maintain an existing career, you can develop skills and still maintain your day job,’’ she says.
‘‘The public service is happy to assist in that arena.’’
She says fire doesn’t keep a nine-to-five schedule, so those who volunteer are likely to have the opportunity to get out in the field.
To apply to volunteer, visit your local RFS office or head to rfs.nsw.gov.au.