18.3 C
Thursday, March 4, 2021

Girls on Fire: the firefighting program changing stereotypes

They can handle the heat just as much as their male counterparts, and a program coming to Newcastle is giving girls the tools to pursue a career in firefighting.

It all started when Bronnie Mackintosh was awarded a Churchill Fellowship research grant to recruit more women into NSW Fire and Rescue.

She travelled to the US and Canada, where she was introduced to camps that have been successful in increasing female numbers in the emergency services.

“Overseas everyone had the same struggle, girls not conditioned to think it’s a job for them and turning away from male- dominated sectors like mining and STEM areas,” Ms Mackintosh said.

“There was a push to see this as a viable option for girls and to break down barriers of stereotypes.”

Once she returned home, Mackintosh was instrumental in uniting Fire and Rescue NSW, NSW Rural Fire Service, the State Emergency Service, Airservices Australia and NSW Parks and Wildlife to create ‘Girls on Fire.’

The program teaches young women firefighting and emergency service skills, increasing their confidence and resilience and introducing them to the possibility of a career or volunteering in the fire and emergency services. 

The inaugural, seven day Girls Fire and Emergency Services Camp was held at Yarramundi in the Hawkesbury Valley in 2018.

“Camps introduce teenage girls to the variety of the roles and give them the opportunity to have an experience and learning day where they wear the gear, carry equipment, understand principles and run scenarios such as running water from the fire truck onto the incident,” Ms Mackintosh said.

“They learn how agencies work together and collaborate for better safety outcomes for the community.”

This year’s camp was cancelled, initially due to bushfires and then because of COVID.

Instead a program called ‘Virtually Possible’ is being run across the state, including in Newcastle.

It combines online learning with virtual workshops and a one-day fire operations practical session. 

“In Newcastle the girls will be extinguishing a car fire simulated using a gas prop, [complete] some of the fitness-related activities, and bring together all of their skills in a scenario that mirrors what we do,” Mackintosh said.

The results of ‘Girls on Fire’ is being monitored by Monash University, and they’re promising.

“From the last residential camp, 50% of participants went on to volunteer or join the service as a retained firefighter,” she said.

“We’ve had our first person from camp join Fire and Rescue as a permanent firefighter and others join the RFS and SES.”

The inclusion rate of females in Fire and Rescue NSW has also jumped from 3% to 8%.

“More women are doing it because of awareness and publicity, but the role has also changed, there’s better fire protection and buildings are constructed better,” Ms Mackintosh said.

“We have very good equipment and training and attend car accidents and animal rescues – you don’t need to be big bloke or a burly firefighter.”