MFB is an organisation with many proud traditions which should be preserved, but a significantly male-dominated environment that is not family-friendly should be one of the traditions we leave in the past as we work toward our future as a world class fire and emergency service.
Firecall, No. 338, 2018.
The role of a firefighter has changed dramatically over time. Today, only around a fifth of the incidents firefighters attend are fires. Firefighters are also involved in teaching fire safety at schools, responding to major road incidents, rescuing people trapped under buildings and resuscitating patients suffering cardiac arrest. Firefighters require a huge range of skills to deal with the daily challenges of the job, and diversity offers a spectrum of talented people to meet these challenges head on with professionalism and skill.
Greater diversity has, over time, improved MFB’s culture, creating a stronger and more dynamic organisation. The inclusion of women in operational roles at MFB has brought different perspectives and approaches to problem solving, a critical skill for firefighting. As Commander George Arnold says, ‘You don’t solve problems by having a like-mind, you solve problems with diversity.’
Improved diversity has also created more opportunities for talented women and men to bring their exceptional skill set to the job, making the organisation stronger and better equipped to deal with the wide variety of emergency situations faced in modern times.
I didn’t expect it to be seven years before I actually worked on shift with another woman. I didn’t expect the stress of being the only woman on a shift, in a district. The first few years were really difficult in that respect.
MFB Female Firefighter.
The recruitment of women was one of the biggest changes in MFB’s history. Like most major changes, it was controversial. While some men remark they didn’t even really notice the inclusion of women among their ranks, others initially found it confronting.
When the Communications Centre women joined MFB in 1983, the reality of working at an established, traditionally male organisation, was challenging, but the new female-dominated team enjoyed a strong sense of camaraderie and support. The first female firefighters who commenced in 1988 found the transition extremely tough. ‘In the early days, it was sink or swim’, comments one of these forerunners, ‘there was no support. When I was picked on no one stood up for me. I was on my own’.
Today, many female firefighters speak of being accepted and feeling a sense of true belonging within the MFB family, however, this has come at a cost for many of their forbears, and some contemporaries, who felt compelled to act as ‘one of the boys’. Female firefighters have largely flown ‘under the radar’ in an effort to be judged solely as ‘firefighters’ and not ‘female firefighters’.
Despite such challenges, female firefighters overwhelmingly encourage others to join. One early firefighter was proud to have been a leader for other women. ‘Any woman that is pioneering anything, they want to hear that their hard work has gone to making it easier for other women.’
In 2018, history was again made at MFB when the first two women qualified and successfully completed the organisation’s Commander Development Program alongside 10 of their male colleagues. Commander Trudy Walker and Commander Donna Wheatley are now the highest-ranking female firefighters at MFB. Their journey has not been an easy one. For all firefighters, male or female, every promotion requires hard work, dedication, self-belief and encouragement.
Being an MFB leader requires visibility amongst colleagues and in the public eye. For many female firefighters this has been a deterrent to seeking promotion. Michelle Field was one of the first three female firefighters to join MFB in 1988. It wasn’t long before she was encouraged to apply for promotion. However, after the media attention she received during her recruit training course, she had decided to never be the first again. ‘I didn’t want to stand out,’ she said.
However, some women took opportunities with both hands. Senior Station Officer Mac Hanson was one of the first women to qualify to this rank. Despite standing out because she was often the only woman in a room, Mac never tried to fit it. ‘I had a strong role model, a mother who encouraged individualism’, she comments.
While operational women still make up a small number at MFB, their presence and leadership not only benefits the organisation, but encourages other women to consider a career with MFB.