MFB is often described as a ‘family’ that offers a sense of identity beyond the boundaries of an ordinary employer/employee relationship. The inclusion of women 35 years ago has strengthened the concept of the MFB family.
‘Your shift ends up becoming like a family’, Leading Firefighter Suzanne Medwell comments. ‘But when bad things happen you also look after each other. It is a bond that is hard to describe to people who are not firefighters.’ Belonging to a family can bring enormous strength, but it can also be tough when differences of opinion arise and people feel excluded. Managing this family dynamic is therefore critical in making people feel safe, valued and respected.
The sense of MFB as a kind of family is further enhanced by the actual family links that criss-cross throughout its rich history. There have been over 300 family connections within MFB since its foundation in 1891.
Former firefighter Jodie Harrison’s father was at MFB for 30 years and her brother joined several years before her. Growing up, Jodie was familiar with the nature of the work and firefighting lifestyle. Other MFB families have been created within the organisation with many partnerships forming between people meeting on the job. Communications Operator Eileen Rudd (née Richardson) met her firefighter husband Rodney Rudd while working at MFB in 1983. Following in the couple’s footsteps is their son, Aaron, a next generation MFB firefighter.
Firefighters care about the community. The job, by nature, involves protecting and caring for others. ‘One reason I wanted to do the job was to help the community’, reflects Station Officer Sarah Hammond on her decision to become a firefighter. ‘The public holds the MFB in pretty high regard and having impact on people is the most rewarding part of being a firefighter.’
It is no surprise, then, that MFB staff are frequent participants in community fundraising events. In recent decades MFB women have shown themselves to be outstanding contributors to these causes.
The physicality of firefighting is particularly appealing to women with a passion for fitness and it is not unusual to find elite athletes among their ranks. MFB women are regular participants in endurance charity events such as the Melbourne Firefighter Stair Climb, the MCG Stadium Stomp, and the 88-floor Eureka Stair Climb. These challenges see firefighters climb hundreds of stairs against the clock, often in their full turnout kit and breathing apparatus weighing around 25 kilograms raising thousands of dollars for a range of charities.
Along with their male colleagues, female MFB firefighters also contribute each year to the Royal Children’s Hospital Good Friday Appeal, which MFB has been a part of for 59 years, and numerous other charity fundraising events.
MENTORING AND PEER SUPPORT
There is a long-established culture of support at MFB. It is one of the organisation’s greatest strengths. While operational women at MFB have faced challenges in gaining acceptance within the organisation over the past 35 years, many also report receiving valuable support from both workmates and managers.
Female firefighters overwhelmingly speak of the support they received from people within MFB from their very earliest interaction with the organisation. Many women count the informal contact they had with firefighters before recruitment as crucial to their success. They welcomed the guidance they received during recruit training from instructors and colleagues, both male and female. Following graduation, many were mentored by senior officers to acclimatise to their surroundings, acquire specialist skills and progress through the ranks.
This culture of providing a helping hand to colleagues within the MFB family is also manifest in a structured capacity through MFB’s Peer Support Program. The program operated informally from 1984 until it was formalised in 1992. Peers are made up of operational and corporate staff who provide essential emotional support and resilience guidance to their peers. They provide an empathic ear, low level psychological intervention, education on stress and psychological support services, identify peers who may be at risk, and facilitate pathways to professional help. It emerged partly in response to the cultural change that occurred with the inclusion of women in the organisation and women continue to play a vital role in the Peer Support Program today.