These words from Justin Baxter are poignant.
As a professional in the field of emergency services and as a SA CFS Volunteer, in this very personal piece, Justin has captured the essence of what it means to be part of our remarkable Emergency Services family.
I am woken suddenly from the deepest sleep by a device designed to do just that. The noise it emits is a mix of tone and pitch. It is followed by vibration and a gentle bounce as it dances across my bedside table.
My SA CFS pager has lifted me from my slumber.
My children refer to this as ‘the song of my people’. My eyes are heavy and I have trouble focusing my vision. I swing my legs out of bed; my hand instinctively reaches out and picks up the pager. My first action is to press a button to silence the noise and stop the vibration. Hopefully this hasn't roused the other members of my household.
I now press the button to read the message while I fumble to get my clothes on. I know this is a call-out as the pager’s song is specific; I know this melody too well, it’s the tune for call-outs (emergency incident response). During a general message it will dance to a different melody.
I fight the urge to use the bathroom, a feeling I’m used to, it’s hard to explain but I think it’s something to do with the tone and pitch of the noise. My level of consciousness increases with each passing second. I focus on the message as I pull on my clothes and head out of the bedroom.
I walk through the dark house; collect my car keys and Captain’s radio from the bench on the way out the back door. This too is an instinctive function. My children are sleeping soundly and haven’t woken. When they do wake and find my car and I missing they’ll know where I've gone, but not why.
I make a mental note to call them later so they don’t worry should they be alerted via social media or in news bulletins. I fire up the car and reverse out of the driveway and make my way to the station. Contrary to popular belief, I do not have an exemption to break any road rules while making my way to the station and that includes speeding. I have the fastest route to the station committed to my memory. The radio barks to life next to me when I’m less than 500m to the station “station manned” is the call and I respond with “Captain mobile to station.” I provide an estimated time of arrival (ETA).
As I pull into the station car park the first truck is out on the forecourt, red and blue lights casting a multi-coloured light show on the building, the road and neighbouring property. The truck is manned and accelerates away smoothly, its siren wailing into action to alert other road users of its presence.
I walk briskly into the station and pronounce “Captain on deck” as I walk through the door and proceed to get my firefighting gear on, grab my bag with note books and other equipment. I seek succinct responses to a myriad of questions asked of those present. I select an appropriately trained crew for this incident from those at the ready to board the truck. I conduct a final check of additional radios, drinking water and other paraphernalia and I climb, effortlessly, into the cabin.
The driver is confident of which route to take and I give the final command to turn out. I change the radio channel and call up ‘Adelaide Fire’ and acknowledge that we are mobile to the incident, I then change to another channel and call mobile to the station radio room.
It has now been approximately 8 – 9 minutes since the pager woke me, my head is starting to clear and I’m becoming fully focused. The adrenaline is coursing through my body.
My mind is channeling multiple thought processes cognitively. I consider my crew’s safety; their roles, how is the incident unfolding; who is impacted and what will I be required to do?
The radio is animated with situation reports and resource requests coming through rapid fire. Like the driver, my eyes are also scanning the road ahead and to the side. This is potentially the most dangerous part of the job, moving along a public road in a 13 tonne truck. Even with beacons flashing and a siren wailing it does not guarantee other road users have seen or heard us.
Often other road users are distracted by music from their stereos with their favourite song playing at high volume. They might be recklessly checking hair and make-up, talking on their phone or wiping the spilled hot coffee of their lap. I have seen it all.
Fortunately tonight is a good run. As we approach the scene the thick black smoke is silhouetted against the sky line. We pass through one Police road block, the officer gives us an encouraging wave on the way through. We round the bend and the scene is now completely exposed to us.
There are fire appliances everywhere, hoses look like a bowl of spaghetti, each leading to a person at the other end. Every member on the fire ground is getting to work to quench the flames.
I steady my crew as we pull up and exit the vehicle. I locate the on-scene commander and await tasking. He quickly gives us a section of the fire to focus on and we commence work.
I am, for all intents and purposes, a crew member at this incident. There is no need for me to manage this fire as others have assumed that role. I am back on the tools so to speak, I get my partner, my gear, the hose branch and advance towards the fire. It has now been approximately 18-19 minutes since I was awoken.
I am fully alert and my senses operating at their peak. The air is heavy is acrid smoke, water floods the roadways as hoses are connected and disconnected, trip hazards are everywhere, visibility already clouded.
I enter the fire and immediately start to apply water, the many hours of training have kicked in long ago, and decisions are instinctive.
I open the branch and have already taken a stance to counter the expected reaction of the water flowing. I am now on my knees to escape the heat. I take aim at the base of the fire, but I don’t focus entirely on it, I’m looking around, my heart is pounding in my chest, my breathing is slow, deep and deliberate.
I’m trying to assess what may hurt me, what may prevent me from making it home to my family safely after this incident, what could potentially extinguish my being. Suddenly as more water is put onto the flames my visibility has fallen. It is non-existent. I cannot see anything; I can only feel my partner, his hand on my shoulder and his other hand supporting the heavy hose.
No matter how many times I’ve had this happen it still sends a shiver of sheer terror down my spine. My sense of fear eases, I know visibility will return as quickly as it was lost.
The visibility does return and I refocus my attention to the task at hand. I am part of a greater team trying to fight the battle and beat the fire. To use an analogy, it is like the last over of a one day cricket match, where the batting team only need a run and a ball and there’s only one wicket left.
Tensions are high. We have bowled a couple of dot balls, the batters need 3 runs off the last ball, then all of a sudden the roof starts to come down, they’ve hit a 4 off of the last ball. It’s time to leave the pitch…quickly.
The taste of defeat sits on my palate like bitter lemon. What could I have done differently to make the save and win the game? But it’s not a game.
It is another 2 hours before we are released from our task and leave the incident. We smell like burnt toast, a description my family use.
The adrenaline has long since been spent in my system and I’m both physically and mentally fatigued. My crew are as equally fatigued, they have put in an equally significant effort. We work as a team and each member’s contribution to the effort is mighty.
The ride back to the station is a sombre affair until someone finds humour in the recent actions of others. This along with self-deprecation is used to release some of the tension. The humour, like our turn-out clothing, is black. It is a coping mechanism for the stressors that we have all faced.
The job however is not yet complete. The appliance needs to be recommissioned for the next job. As Captain, I have paperwork to complete and file.
Unlike my fellow crew members I am lucky I work a two week on/two week off roster, I have volunteered during my down time, my swing home. My crew have jobs to go to today. Volunteering doesn't pay the mortgage.
Among other administrative duties I’ll have to do before I go home is to pen attendance letters for crew members who will be late to work or who have missed work. Depending on their employer they may get paid for the day. It may be deducted from their annual leave, emergency services leave or the employer may, in a show of good will, generously bear the cost. Many days however are taken as leave without pay with the employer donating the employees’ time.
I arrived home some hours after the pager disrupted my sleep. I walk through the door, my face blackened with soot from the fire, my hair a mess, my clothes permeated with the unmistakable smell. I make a mental note to wash my gear separately from other household washing.
My kids are up and having breakfast. There is a look of relief on their smiling faces and they ask me about the job. I give them broad details but never the bits that would make them more worried than necessary. They tell me ‘great job’ and they are proud of me, but that I stink and need to go and shower!
This account is narrating a real incident. It is not from the bush-fires currently burning at Sampson Flat but from one of the other 300 plus incidents my brigade attends throughout the course of any given year.
The outpouring of support from the community throughout the Sampson Flat fires has been nothing short of amazing. An event of this significance and the subsequent media coverage has given the general public exposure to the work of volunteer emergency services personnel. This greater insight into who we are and what we do, even if it is for only one aspect of our roles, in this case bushfire, is fundamental to cohesive communities.
Social media has had a significant role in raising awareness. The posting of images and words in real time is powerful.
In all of the social commentary a four letter word has frequented the pages. It is the word ‘hero’. For many years I have been uncomfortable with this label. I have always considered myself to be someone who is giving to my community when it is in need. To my mind ‘heroes; have always achieved great feats, of superhuman proportion.
The Oxford English Dictionary primarily defines a hero as: A person, typically a man, who is admired for their courage, outstandingachievements, or noble qualities: ega war hero
I have always been proud of what I do. My volunteer career has given me the ability and opportunity to turn my skills and expertise into my professional career.
But I have never felt that I have done heroic things. Heroes are those ‘other people’ who do utterly amazing things. The dictionary definition says a person, ‘typically a man’; however my organisation is blessed to include a significant number of women who fit the category, I treat women and men as equals.
Reflecting on my involvement in these fires the word hero still does not sit comfortably with me. I feel I have done no more or no less than my colleagues.
I now contemplate how those I have considered as heroes in the past feel about this title being applied to them. Is there an emotion that I should be feeling? Is there such a feeling as heroism? If there is, I am not feeling it right now. I just feel that I've done my best to help others in their time of need.
I am proud. Very proud! In contemplating the definition of ‘hero’ I can now, for the first time in my life, feel comfortable with this description being used to describe me and my actions and the actions of so many others.
There is much work to be done to stabilise and normalise, so the community may begin to recover and heal from this catastrophic event.
The support has been unwavering. For each volunteer though who set foot on the fire ground or in some other capacity, this is not their final job. It won’t be their final call-out or the last time they experience fear whilst selflessly defending life, property and the environment.
We can hope that this incident has been a once in a lifetime significant event. But I fear there will be more. We can say with pride though that “we were there; we fought and did our best.”
The reality is that pagers will continue to sound and to summons volunteers to action. The call-outs will be to incidents which will receive less publicity than this event; but the dangers no less real, challenging or confronting.
Am I a hero? Well I’ll let you be the judge. For now though, I am more than comfortable to say that I am a very proud volunteer of the SA Country Fire Service.
I am here to help you through your dark times. I can’t necessarily make it any better, but I’ll do my damnedest to not make it any worse.