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Bahgallah back from the brink
Bahgallah’s captain and first lieutenant visited Regional BASO Victoria Pullen earlier this year to discuss the brigade’s viability. Casterton Group Officer Jeff Black also attended and saw “a few members banging their heads against the wall”.
“They felt like they were carrying the load,” explained Victoria. “I asked them what they feared would be the outcome for a brigade with disengaged members. They were thinking of merging with Corndale, their nearest neighbour. I asked them if they’d asked their community about that idea and they hadn’t.”
While the brigade was high risk for sustainability, its brigade area of farmland with absentee owners plus plantations is high bushfire risk: a dangerous combination. They average five incidents a year including support.
“At a glance, one third of brigade members were no longer operational, one third had left the area and one third weren’t engaged,” continued Victoria.
That doesn’t leave many people for the truck!
“There were 38 houses in the brigade area but who was living in the houses people had left? Did locals know that the brigade was having trouble turning out? Was there something they felt they could contribute?
“The brigade needed to know that the community is still behind them.
“The direct approach is always best with feet under the table and a cup of tea, so I got in the car and drove down every road and every driveway. I left a letter if people weren’t home.
“I spoke with about 28 people and the overwhelming feeling was that everyone wanted their brigade and their truck to stay – it’s now quite central to the houses. There was some concern that, if they become Corndale-Bahgallah brigade, the truck could be moved.
“When I was visiting a brigade member, I asked what it would take to get them back and engaged. They want training to be meaningful: get in on a Sunday morning, do the training, go home. They didn’t want a chat-fest.”
Two weeks after Victoria’s drive around, the brigade’s annual general meeting hosted 24 people when meetings had previously failed to achieve a quorum.
“About 20 of them were a surprise,” said Victoria. “A lot of members came back. They signed up two new members and two others are now on the way through. We talked about sharing the load to free up the firefighters and every position in the brigade management team was filled with different people in every role.
“Everyone stayed until the end for a chat and the people who had felt all this pressure could see that the community really did care.
“One long time brigade member volunteered to clean the station, update the station notice board and oversee any deliveries to the shed. In order to share the workload of the secretary, two other people will undertake activities that will support this role.”
“The doorknock worked a treat,” agreed new Captain Vern Elmes. “Once people were made aware of the issues it gave them a jolt and now we have three or four going through the recruit course.”
In late June, Casterton Group Officer Jeff Black – who is also the Corndale captain – took about 18 members through a radios and mapping refresher with a dedicated channel and a member acting as VicFire. This incorporated two scenarios; one a grass and scrub fire and the second a good intent call.
“It was good to see such healthy numbers and some in their late teens and early 20s,” said Jeff. “The brigade is an identity for the local community and no one wanted them to fold.
“We went through the same process of re-engaging our members five years ago at Corndale when we were battling to get the truck out the door. Every household but three in our area has a brigade member in it and we found it was important to engage the whole family. Get the community involved and keep them involved. We have a family barbecue once a year and include a bit of training and Bahgallah is keen to go down that track.”
A vital part of this re-engagement process was the brigade making that initial approach to the local support team with Jeff’s encouragement, not Victoria approaching the brigade.
Don’t think it makes much difference?
“It does,” said Victoria. “The idea is that people are more invested and empowered if they initiate. We don’t tell the brigade what to do – there’s no ownership that way. They decide. They tell me what the issues are, how they think it might best be resolved and from there it’s, ‘How can I help? What support do you need?’”
Victoria has now put together a roster for the brigade incorporating jobs people volunteered for such as mowing the lawn. All the training officers in the group have coordinated a training calendar.
It’s still early days for the new-look Bahgallah. They haven’t ruled out a merger with their neighbours, but for now they have some breathing space. The members have been inspired and mentored by the deputy group officers but there’s still some scepticism. Everyone is so busy, how do you best communicate, mobiles don’t always work and not everyone has email.
“Now it’s about keeping that engagement and communication going,” said Victoria. “Jeff is just fantastic at supporting and encouraging all members in the group.”
It takes a community to run a fire brigade.