AFSM winner John T. Callahan, a pioneer

For 74 years CFA has been protecting the lives and properties of Victorians and for 55 of those years, John Thomas Callahan has been serving with distinction. 


John Callahan received an AFSM today.

A founding member of Barwon Downs Rural Fire Brigade in 1963, he was just 23. Elected as a Communications Officer, John holds the same position to this day in a testament to his endeavour to give back to his community.

John’s eagerness to expand CFA began almost instantly when recalling the founding of his own brigade, “As soon as our brigade formed we realised that we would be served better still by additional brigades, and before you know it we had enough brigades across our community to form our own Group!”

These values of community, cooperation and outcomes have been with John throughout, leading to many pioneering achievements both operationally and socially within CFA. In 1971 Barwon Downs became one of the first brigades in Victoria to welcome women into operational roles during a fire at Hayden’s Mill where no male members were able to turn out. Noting the need for a more reliable service John encouraged greater female participation for the benefit of the brigade and the community.

“CFA is a big family, and we should always be looking for ways to improve how we interact with the community and improve our service to them. Having more diversity in brigades enables both of these to occur”.

While aerial observation and suppression is now considered second nature, John was one of the first members of CFA to utilise this technology during incidents in 1963 due to his pre-existing pilot license. Back then, there was no communications when in the air. Old ex-military HF radios which were available consisted of two parts and were too heavy to take on the plane, with two fully grown men required to even transport it small distances.

Aerial observation gives you an unparalleled three dimensional vantage point of an incident, allowing the observer to fully take in the incident as a whole while assessing its ferocity, rate of spread, capacity to spot and much more. This strategic capability has been immeasurable in its effectiveness for firefighting, with John regularly flying all day in testing conditions amongst the heat, smoke and lightning to relay to those on the ground the most up to date knowledge in terms of positioning and prioritisation.

This was true during the Ash Wednesday fires, where John, having fought the blaze in Deans Marsh and checked for accessibility for his fellow firefighters and their trucks, took to the skies to survey the scene.

“I saw the fire sweep through Moggs Creek and Fairhaven like doll houses. I’m one of the only people to have seen Ash Wednesday three dimensionally from the air and it is something I will never forget.”

A lot has changed since then, “I used to draw maps of the fire and drop them in a tube on a small parachute to the ground crews. Now we use computers for mapping. Anything done on aircraft is available live to any CFA command and other agencies across the State. We really have come a long way as an organisation and sector.”

John is also keenly aware of the value in passing on his skills to future generations, and has done this with distinction for decades be it through communications and fire ground training or specialist aerial flying and observation.

“Those of us with experience need to take it upon ourselves to give back to the next generation of upcoming firefighters to help them to become the best firefighter, observer or even Chief they can be. I’ve been given plenty of support and encouragement from CFA, my wife, family and friends over the years and I wouldn’t have succeeded without them.”

John, CFA would like to thank you for joining our organisation all those years ago and congratulate you for your most deserved award. 

Author: CFA News & Media