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Briagolong is no boys’ club
The majority of Briagolong brigade’s management team and nearly half of its 62 members are women – quite a different situation from when Heather Hamment first joined in 1981.
“I joined as a member of the auxiliary and helped with FRS radio communications from home for years before that, and it was very much a boys’ club at that stage. Like everything, equal opportunity hadn’t quite broken through. But once it did, more and more women became involved,” said Secretary and First Lieutenant Heather.
Women began joining the brigade 30 years ago to help respond to incidents during the day, as most of the Briagolong population works outside the town, and the gender mix has since become part of the brigade’s culture.
"Things have got better and better for women in CFA and I don’t find any obstacles in my path now," continued Heather. "I’m able to contribute at all levels and attend District Planning Committee meetings and group meetings. Three of our high-level brigade leaders – a fourth lieutenant, first lieutenant and treasurer – are women. Our communications officer, community education officer and catering officer are women as well.
“I’m just waiting to see a female operations officer break through. I don’t think I’ll live to see the day when our Chief Officer is a female but, hopefully, our younger members will. Don’t get me wrong, the males are doing a fantastic job, but it would be nice to see more female involvement in the higher ranks.”
Heather finds that family responsibilities now affect the men in her brigade as much as the women.
“Young families can hold a lot of women back I think. Our first priority has to be our children, but there’s now far more emphasis on family life for the men as well. There’s just as much pressure on men to hold the family unit together and for them to be involved in their children’s lives.
“We’re finding that women are working as much as the men these days, so it’s a fairly even mix looking after our daytime response – mostly retired members. I know a lot of brigades that have members with young families that set up a roster where one babysits while the other goes out. I think that’s admirable – certainly a way to get people interested,” said Heather.
So what’s the secret to attracting more women to a brigade?
“There’s no secret. It’s just about whether people feel welcome or not. It’s up to brigades to ensure every new member is made to feel welcome, taught the basics and looked after whether they’re 16 or 66 years old. They have to be able to walk into the room and feel comfortable. If you’re not made to feel useful, you’ll go and find something else to do.
“I’ve been the only woman on different courses and have always been treated with respect. I love the companionship, the friends you make in CFA. It goes right up to the Chief Officer – I know Euan and can shake his hand and ask him how he’s going.”
This camaraderie is Fourth Lieutenant Wendy Wilkinson’s favourite part of volunteering with Briagolong brigade.
“We have a great brigade. It’s a dynamic group of people from all walks of life. When we get together on a Monday night it’s more like fun than a chore.”
This is lucky because as a lieutenant in the brigade, Wendy has quite a few chores to get through each week.
“In addition to supporting the captain operationally, each lieutenant has a role. My duties are to keep the inside of the station clean and presentable. The other guys are in charge of keeping the tanker clean, another is in charge of lawns. Heather looks after all the personal protective equipment as well as a lot of administration work. We all have our own responsibilities.
“I’m a crew leader, first-aid officer and I drive the tanker. As a lieutenant, I also need to be a role model for the younger ones – especially now my 16-year-old son has just joined up.
“We’re a community-based family. I run the after-school club two nights a week, our kids plays sport, my husband is president of the footy club and part of the RSL. He’s also the local police officer in the town – we often meet at incidents.”
Any advice for women thinking about joining CFA?
“Just make the most of the opportunities CFA can give you," said Wendy. "They’re happy to pay for you to become a first-aider. Do courses such as AIIMS and media liaison. If you put in the time and commitment, they will reward you by increasing your knowledge and paying for you to do things you wouldn’t normally do. It opens new horizons.
“While I like being out there where the action is, you don’t have to be an operational firefighter out there in the middle of a bushfire. You can be a support person who stays behind and mans the radio or supplies meals from the catering trailer.”
Captain John Hamment says that, while the gender mix is a positive thing for the brigade, Briagolong doesn’t operate any differently to other brigades.
“We’re all pretty equal and we’ve always had it like that. We had competition teams in the past and they were always an even mix between girls and boys. Most of the women are working now as well so our crews are always about 50/50,” John said.
“Everyone gets along together because we train every week and always plan our training around the needs of our members. There’s always a good mix at the station.”
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