It was inevitable that when he turned 15 he’d join up as a junior member. It was a kind of expectation, as it was for his own daughter. “It’s just a natural progression,” he says. “Once you’re involved you make a lot of friends. It’s like a big family.”
But responsibility brings a deeper understanding of the complexities of leadership. On his first day as captain, Kim posted a notice that reads “Respect each other as individuals”. It’s an essential principle to live by, he says. “In an organisation of over 40 members it’s important we understand that we are all different and are not only entitled to different opinions but to the same opportunities.”
That sense of belonging is the glue that binds the Wonthaggi Fire Brigade members into a working and fighting unit. Except for one paid administration support officer, they’re all volunteers but that feeling of family enables them to do extraordinary things. Firefighters are tested all the time. Their job can be life-threatening and emotionally traumatic. Support structures are crucial.
Are firefighters braver than other people? Kim hesitates. He’s witnessed a lot of courage under pressure. “No,” he says. “But we’re able to act with discipline because of our training. You’ve got to get over the fear of the fire. You rely on the training to do that for you.”
Containing the physical and emotional risk is everything. Teamwork plays a big role here. Being part of, having confidence in, a highly functioning unit is clearly a big factor. And it means someone else is always there to encourage or offer support.
As brigade captain, Kim takes this responsibility seriously.
Taught by experience to be level-headed under pressure, he’s able to watch out for others. “Sometimes when I’m fighting alongside someone, I can hear the adrenalin racing; they’re getting really strung up and panicked. I’d generally walk up and relieve them of some their responsibilities.” His own strategy is to put things into perspective. It’s like a mantra. “I say it all the time. You take a reality check. You weigh up what you can realistically do and do that. You have to recognise that you can’t control everything.”
The heightened emotion, the feeling that you’ve really lived, that you’ve done something really significant can be a motivating force in fire fighting. But then there are times when you’re pushed too far. Firefighters are usually first on the scene of car accidents and, belonging to a small community, might know the victims. There is limited formal training to help them cope with that trauma.
Everyone is vulnerable to some degree. “Ninety nine per cent of our members will have an event of some kind they find too confronting,” Kim says. “I’ve gone home at times after dealing with bad things. It’s hard. It’s best to talk to people but when you’re really affected by what you’ve experienced, that’s not always possible.” If a job has involved trauma, the brigade will run a critical incident stress debriefing: someone from another brigade comes to debrief the whole team.
Researchers say there’s a 10 per cent annual attrition rate among firefighters and there’s a range of reasons. It’s a huge personal commitment: a minimum of four hours a week and that’s without the fire calls – up to 200 a year. For a captain, the time commitment can be three hours a day plus the fire calls plus the bushfire campaigns. Kim has already lost eight days this year. “Your family can get really sick of it. It’s a massive drain on families and relationships.”
The key is to feel valued. It sounds simple enough but in the hot and cold world of firefighting, that feeling can fluctuate wildly. Three weeks ago members were backburning a large property on the Tasman Peninsula, containing a fire that destroyed 114 houses. “We were busy all the time, we worked hard; it was good because we were contributing.” Conversely, at Heyfield last week the team had to hang about waiting for instructions. Members felt they’d wasted their time, they’d made no impact. There were grumblings of dissatisfaction. “I told them we hadn’t wasted our time. We were there. People were happy we were there. People felt good because our fire trucks were there.”
Sometimes it can be a thankless task. “When someone’s a victim of a fire all rationality goes out the window. You’ll get abused, punched... I was at a house fire recently; it’s 3 am, I’m there alone and waiting for backup and the owner is trying to fight me because he thinks I’m not doing enough.”
Then there’s the opposite response. When the team was over in Tasmania, they stopped at a cafe. The owner walked over to the woman behind the counter and said: “If these guys want coffee, it’s on the house!” Coming back on the plane, the flight attendant announced that there were DSE and CFA members on board returning from the fires and the passengers burst into spontaneous applause.
“Awesome!" says Kim.