Darren Johnson knocked on doors in the sweltering February heat, following his map to mark residents who were staying or leaving their property. “There is every chance we will not get to you,” he’d been telling nervous home owners in Bonang, a town six and a half hours drive north east of Melbourne. He knew time was running out; strong winds were pushing the fire front towards the town.
“We may not be able to get to you when the fire comes through,” Darren said to a middle aged woman who opened one of the doors. She was the owner of a large property. “What is your plan?”
“Don’t kill yourself getting here,” the owner replied. “It is my property.”
Darren marked the word ‘staying’ on the map, and asked her about her fire plan, her fall back point and her place of last resort. This is so he and the crew would know where to look if she lost the fight. Darren had faced this situation before. He has been a volunteer with the Upper Ferntree Gully Fire Brigade since 2009. But it was still not an easy task.
“To ask that is fairly confronting,” Darren says. “In the back of your mind you know the information you are gathering will tell you where to look if the worst happens.”
“It was confronting,” Darren says again. The woman said she was ready to die defending her property.
“Those words stuck with me… like you always remember your first fatal.”
There are no chairs in Darren’s ‘office’, the back shed of the Upper Ferntree Gully fire station. Red and white hoses cover the bench tops, and oil, cleaning products, screwdrivers and chainsaws rest on the shelves above. He sits leaning against a rugged wooden bench, his legs resting against a row of bright yellow drawers.
“It’s not much of an office,” he says. A communication radio hums with static in the background. The loud rumble of a train passing less than 80 metres from where we stand forces a pause in our conversation.
As members of the Country Fire Authority (CFA), volunteers are often exposed to potentially traumatic or stressful incidents. All members have different responses to tragedy and deal with the emotional burden of constant exposure to trauma in unique and individual ways. The memories that haunt Darren are the ones he tries to forget; they are too painful to be lingering around. He has a technique: he visualise the memory of Bonang and scrunch it up into a little ball and shoved it right down to the bottom of a metaphorical bucket. “But if you keep doing that,” I ask, “won’t the bucket overflow?”
“That is what this card is for,” he shows me a card from his brown leather wallet. “If you have a moment where you are feeling like that, you put your hand up for help.”
The CFA offers peer-support, an Employee Assistance Program, and chaplaincy to support brigade members in managing their mental and emotional health. A Critical Incident Debriefing occurs on return to the station from a potentially traumatic scene. Darren says if they are called out to a “really bad job” the counsellors will be at the station even before the crew returns.
Ferntree Gully CFA volunteer Graham Crichton says for a serious incident the crew will go back to the station to do a de-brief. Graham has spent 32 years as an active firefighter. It is something he has always enjoyed doing. “And you know,” he says, “there is a good old saying – if you want to feel good about yourself, do something for somebody else”.
“The jobs just melt into history, unless it is something that really sits in your mind. When you get a call you always think, ‘are there children involved?’ You always think ‘is it someone you know?’”
The CFA acknowledges it is not only volunteers, but their family members who are impacted emotionally by their work. Like volunteers, family members are also able to access free and confidential support services provided by the CFA. Darren tells me he doesn’t speak to his wife about how he feels about traumatic call outs. “She doesn’t want to know,” he explains. She had once heard a briefing at the station before he was to go away on a long job. “It can get pretty graphic. It tells you what is going on in the area and potential hazards.” “I never want to hear another one of those,” she said after the briefing.
Darren pictures his wife at home “worrying like crazy” while he is out on the job. “It’s her thing, the less she hears the better.”
He knows without a doubt being out on a job worries his 13 and 15-year-old daughters, especially when away on a long strike team like in Bonang. He may only be able to phone his girls quickly at night, if at all. Even then he tells them very little about the job, nothing that would make them worry. But the situation is the same in reverse.
“I used to travel for work, so my wife and I are very attuned to not telling each other something that is going to make us worry. So if it is something I can’t fix over the phone, my wife doesn’t tell me.If there is something at home that is going on, I won’t get told about it.”
Both Darren and Graham make it clear to me being a CFA volunteer is very much a family commitment. “It would be pretty hard to do the job if you didn’t have family support and understanding,” Graham says. “It’s an understanding on everybody’s part. If you get involved, you are not joining a club, you are joining an essential service.” Graham has three adult children and six grandchildren. “When the kids were younger, I guess it was often disappointing when we were out doing something as a family and you’d get a call.”
Volunteering does impact on his family life, but he is greatly supported by loved ones. Volunteering with the CFA is something Darren had wanted to do since he was 19-years old. Now 46, it has taken a long time for the commitment to fit into his lifestyle. A change in his position at work meant he would no longer be travelling for two weeks of the month, allowing him to join the CFA just before Black Saturday.
“It was a hole that was missing in my life.” Like Graham, a desire to serve the community drives his passion for the CFA. “It’s fulfilling,” he explains and smiles.
“I think my girls are proud to say their father is a firefighter,” Darren says. His 15-year-old daughter is a junior member of the Upper Ferntree Gully brigade. Once 16, junior members can join the senior brigade and attend call outs as an active firefighter. “Would you want her doing that at 16?” I ask, the thought of attending a call so young is a shock to me.
“As a father I guess I am not going to feel too comfortable. But if it is something she wants to do I won’t stand in her way.” The brigade has had 16-year-olds join the senior brigade in the past. “Their family has to bring them down at 3 o’clock in the morning when the pager goes off,” he laughs, “now that’s a family commitment”.
Crew members constantly stream through the office of supplies in search of screw drivers, chainsaws, and soap to wash the trucks. “My office is a flow through office,” Darren chuckles. A balding man steps into the shed. “Ooh, I am interrupting something, clearly,” he remarks. “It’s fine,” Darren says, “I think I have had half the brigade through the room.” The man rummages through the shelves, “a young lady, that’s what it is.” The skin under Darren’s eyes wrinkles as he laughs, “I thought it was me wearing shorts, which is a rarity”.
“Once you step through that front door you are a fire-fighter and everyone is your friend,” Darren says. “Without any doubt some of my very best friends are in the CFA,” Graham says. “And that is important. You couldn’t do it without close relationships with people.” On the job, firefighters work on a system of trust and teamwork. Darren describes it as a “buddy system”.
“If you are on the end of the line with the branch (hose nozzle), your backup is the hose dragger who is responsible to look up and watch for potential dangers.”
There are more than dangers to the job, however; there are the bizarre and the beautiful moments, such as when Darren climbed the ladder to the top of the tree in his thick yellow protective gear and heavy black boots to come face-to-face with a growling and hissing cat. He tried to wrestle the cat, but it was clearly not having a good time. It kept hissing, clawing and biting his hands, and at one point the defensive animal wrestled free from his grip and he could hear bellowing chuckles from below as the cat fell to the ground, and saw the cat shot off after landing on its feet. Johnson made his way down the ladder to the sound of laughter, which didn’t really stop even as blood streamed from his hand when he ripped off his gloves.
“The next three hours in the hospital were hilarious,” he recalls. The cat had bitten through his thick gloves and deep into his finger. “It didn’t take to being rescued too kindly.” “You guys really do cat rescues?” the nurses at the hospital asked in disbelief. “Yes, really badly,” Johnson replied to their merriment. “You always remember your first fatal,” he says, “ but you remember the funny ones too.”
“If someone asked you what it is like to be a firefighter, what would you tell them?,” I ask Darren. “Is there a particular story that sums up what it is like?” “I am a fire safe kids presenter,” he says. Children come to the station, the kindergarden attend regularly, and Darren runs a session on fire safety. One visit he showed the children the fluffy brown teddy bears the brigade keep in the fire trucks. “They are called trauma teddies. If we have a child that is in distress during a job, we give them a teddy.”
“Why do you think we have a teddy bear on the truck?,” he asked the kinder children who were watching in awe. Johnson was met with dead silence and blank faces.
One young boy raised a hand nervously. Darren looked at him and asked the question again.
“In case you get lonely,” the boy replied.
Darren added that answer to his collection of beautiful moments. Like the woman’s response at Bonang, it is a memory that will stay with him for a long time. But, unlike Bonang, it is a memory that he will keep un-scrunched.