Nestled in the north around 240 kilometres from Melbourne is the country town of Katamatite. With a population of about 400 many may not have heard of it, but this close-knit community focuses on supporting one another.
Katamatite Fire Brigade is a prominent and important part of the community with 31 members stepping forward to respond to about 55 call-outs a year to bushfires, building fires and car accidents.
Twenty years ago the then captain Colin Gillespie identified a lack of weekday, day-time responders. But rather than doing the same type of recruitment drive that had been done in the past, Colin decided to hold community information sessions aimed at persuading stay-at-home mums, homemakers and those working part-time in the area to join the brigade. From the sessions and through word-of-mouth, 12 women showed interested in joining and six of those signed up.
Four of the original six are still heavily involved with the brigade. Three have remained operational and one has joined the brigade management team. At first they were only trained in wildfire firefighting, but the women asked for more. Now they have completed training in low structure, car accidents and crew leader, and two have their medium rigid truck licence and completed Code 1 driver training.
Helen Matthies and Dossie Parnell are two of the original group of women. As they retell stories of their first strike teams, incidents they’ve attended and the camaraderie in the brigade, you can see the smiles on their faces grow.
“Even through the hard times of car accidents, the camaraderie is amazing. The supportive nature of everyone involved helps,” Dossie said.
“Before joining, my husband and son were involved and I remember sitting at a running competition watching from the sidelines,” Helen said. “I just thought to myself ‘why am I sitting here when I could be participating?'” Dossie had the motto of “If you can’t beat them, join them!”
The dynamics of the brigade have changed over the years as the members’ children have grown. Katamatite brigade has always welcomed everyone, but now it has a wonderful family-friendly environment. In recent years, the number of enquiries from young women and families in the community has increased significantly.
District 22 Operations Manager Tony Owen is thrilled with the progressive nature of Katamatite brigade.
“The strongest team is a team that has no barriers when it comes to race, gender or sexual orientation,” Tony said.
Captain John Parnell has continued to use the recruitment model of his predecessor. He believes that it isn’t about reinventing the wheel but about making improvements.
“We don’t treat anyone differently. Everyone is equal and has the right to be heard,” he said. When asked what he would say to other captains who may be struggling with day-time responders, he has these words of wisdom. “If you’re struggling have a look at your community and talk to the women. Get involved and out there as you won’t regret it. It will only make your brigade stronger and more welcoming.”
This sentiment is reinforced by Helen. “Recruit the women in your community. They can become the backbone of your brigade.”