Let’s face it ladies, some girls like to climb trees, ride motorbikes, and trade make-up for mud pies. If you’re not the kind of girl who’s attached to wearing acrylic fingernails and loop earrings, and you’re looking for a career path that quenches your sense of adventure while providing some adrenaline pumping thrills in the name of community service, you may want to join some inspiring women who are climbing the ladder to success with Fire and Rescue NSW.
We’ve been speaking to our city’s female firefighters to find out what makes them want to fire fight.
Once known as the NSW Fire Brigade, female firefighters were rarely heard of in the 1990s, especially in regional stations like Broken Hill. But with three fulltime female firefighters based at the city’s Station 238 in the CBD, and four female on-call firefighters at southside’s Station 239, women are demonstrating it can be a highly rewarding career path for anyone with the right mental attitude who’s willing to maintain physical strength and stamina.
With four on-call female firefighters in the South at Station 239, Paige Cuy, Courtney Garnaut, Sophie Milne, and Megan Cumming, and three fulltime firefighters who started as on-call firefighters at the southside station – Karen Scifleet, Kristy Ramsay, and Saraiha Rakete – there is certainly no shortage of females working in Fire and Rescue in Broken Hill.
Karen, Kristy, and Saraiha may have very different backgrounds, but all share a few things in common – they enjoy hard physical work, they’re calm during a crisis, and they’re comfortable working in a predominantly male environment – being ‘one of the boys’ with no expectation of getting special treatment because they’re women.
At almost 50 years of age, Karen went straight from secondary school in Tasmania into the military, where she worked in the Royal Australian Air Force as an aircraft mechanic for 11 years – one of five women in a squadron of 200 – later marrying and following her husband, Dean Scifleet, into FRNSW where he is now a Station Officer in Broken Hill. The couple don’t have children and they’re the only married couple at Broken Hill fire station who work on the same crew – D platoon.
“Let’s just say this situation works well for us, but may not be suited to all married couples,” laughs Karen.
“After the air force and then working as a defence contractor for over nine years, I became used to para-military structure at a young age. And then I worked with NSW Ambulance for a while before moving into Fire and Rescue because I wanted to be a firefighter, which also meant I remained close to my husband, so it’s all been an easy transition for me,” said Karen.
“Back in the 1990s, as a single female working in a male dominated workplace you had to prove yourself – you had to let your work speak for itself – and you had to watch what you did after hours so you didn’t get a “name for yourself” but I was really thick skinned so I tuned out to most of the sexist comments and remained focused on my job,” Karen says.
“After a while, once the blokes saw that you could work as well as they could, they changed their attitude and just started treating you like one of the boys. I eventually became one of the team, but I had to stand up for myself quite a bit back then as a younger woman.”
“Starting on-call out South, I’ve been working at central station fulltime for four years now and we’re considered equal with the blokes – and we’re expected to work as hard as the blokes,” said Karen. “They’re all great with us. It’s a fantastic work culture in Broken Hill and we all just have each other’s backs.”
Broken Hill born and bred, Kristy, 40, juggles two young children alongside her fire and rescue career.
After spending five and a half years as an on-call firefighter, Kristy has been fighting flames fulltime for the last two years on C platoon – she says, “the best platoon to be on”. But all jokes aside, Kristy highly recommends women of any age considering a career with FRNSW to visit the station for a tour and a chat with one of the female staff.
“It’s a great job whether you’re on-call or permanent but when you have kids it’s ideal to be permanent so you can plan their schedule around your roster.”
When asked how her children feel about their mum being a firefighter, Kristy laughs saying, “well, the kids take every opportunity to tell everyone I’m a firefighter, so I guess they’re pretty proud of my job, which is nice.
“It’s a valuable job with lots of training and opportunities to move up the ranks if that’s important to you,” she says. “Assistant Commissioner of Regional Operations at Fire and Rescue, Cheryl Steer, started as a young firefighter back in the 1990s, moving into a Station Officer position and now she’s an Assistant Commissioner, so it’s great having trailblazers demonstrating what’s possible with hard work.”
Saraiha relocated from Sydney seven years ago to be with her Broken Hill born and raised husband. She’s hit 30 and is keen to start a family. Thriving on the work culture at the station, particularly in B platoon, she’s inspired by the way Kristy juggles family duties with her career commitments and says she’s weighing up all options so she can create a healthy work/life balance for her future family.
Stationed at South station on the on-call crew for four years, Saraiha has been working fulltime at central station for the last two years.
“I’ve never been in a situation where I didn’t know what to do while at a fire. We’ve all had extensive training and we have support so even if we’re confronted with a new situation, we’ve always got experienced people to turn to,” said Saraiha.
With such differing stories, we were curious to find out what their similarities were – what common traits and unique qualities are needed for a woman to work with Fire and Rescue NSW?
“Well, you can’t have acrylic fingernails for a start,” said Karen.
“And jewellery is pretty much out too,” said Saraiha.
With menstruation mentioned as sometimes creating challenges, all women agreed that their male colleagues were very supportive of strategies to manage sanitation when fighting fires, especially in rural or remote locations with no amenities.
“As a woman, you really do need to consider how comfortable you’re going to be navigating certain things around male colleagues when you leave the station,” said Saraiha. “It’s never been an issue for me. The blokes have always been understanding and supportive when needed.”
With the whole crew jumping in to make meals and do the domestics around the station while on shift, once all the checks of the fire truck and equipment are done, there’s time to keep fit at the station gym, or to study, read, and relax.
Working an eight-day cycle on a permanent crew, all three women agree that raising a family doesn’t have to be an obstacle. With 24 hours on, 24 hours off, 24 hours on, followed by five days off, these firefighters say FRNSW is a family-friendly organisation and it’s a career worth considering even if you plan to start a family.
To learn more about a career in FRNSW, visit fire.nsw.gov.au/page.php?id=10