National Volunteer Week (17–23 May) is Australia’s largest annual celebration of volunteers. Almost six million people, nearly a quarter of the population, are volunteers. Canberra Weekly talked to four public-spirited locals who volunteer with the ACT Emergency Services Agency, putting out fires, alerting neighbours, and making maps.
“It’s a time to reflect on how we help out the community, with our colleagues, from all services,” said cartographer Alex von Brandenstein.
Mientje Bramham: Woman firefighter
Mientje Bramham qualified as an operational firefighter with the ACT Rural Fire Service in time for the ‘Black Summer’ of 2019/20.
“That was quite daunting,” Ms Bramham said.
Growing up in Melbourne, she was inspired by the fire crews who fought the 2009 ‘Black Saturday’ fires to join up and help. Living in a city, she was not able to join the Country Fire Authority, but when she moved to the ACT, she was excited to learn she was on the urban fringe and could join the RFS.
“We get a lot of training through RFS, so you feel you have a degree of competency; you understand the equipment; and you understand your job.”
Even so, her first fireground was scary: North Black Range, near Braidwood.
“It was the middle of the day, but it started to get really dark like it was night-time. That was extremely nerve-wracking.”
Luckily, she said, her fire crews were led by very experienced people. “One has been fighting fires longer than I’ve been alive! There was lots of support and camaraderie from the team, and someone was always looking out for you, helping you, guiding you.”
Her nerves quickly passed, and she felt competent. “It was so rewarding to meet some of the people that we were helping, and assist local landowners.”
As a volunteer firefighter, Ms Bramham is called out to put out small fires in the local area. She is also the community engagement officer for her brigade, so talks to schools, scout groups, and the public about the RFS and fire and safety.
“It’s wonderful to set an example for the young boys and girls; to show them the face of a different kind of firefighter. It’s great for them to see a woman in the role who is active and moving machinery, and doing things you wouldn’t necessarily think we’re capable of!”
A public servant by day, Ms Bramham was glad to get away from her computer, and learn new skills like operating pumps, navigation, and bushcraft.
“For me, I’ve always got far more out of volunteering than I put in. It’s a community; it’s a family; it’s a sense of belonging.”
Philip Nolan: SES commander
Philip Nolan, commander of the Tuggeranong State Emergency Service, had an “intense” 2019/20. During the bushfires, the SES helped the local RFS teams. In the middle of the fires, he said, came the hailstorms; and then COVID. Throughout those emergencies, the SES was there, doing logistics work or doorknocking.
Mr Nolan, a retired statistician, and his wife joined the SES 11 years ago.
“The commander’s role is basically making sure that everyone is up to scratch as far as their training goes, making sure that at the end of the day people go home safely to their families.
“This is a volunteer environment; we want to make sure that their training, their abilities, and the teams they’re working with are capable of carrying out the tasks. And that also means sometimes making a decision to say, ‘No, we’re not skilled enough in this area’, and to step away from it.”
The Tuggeranong SES team has nearly 60 members, ranging in age from 18 to nearly 80 – a good cross-section of the community, Mr Nolan said.
“You’re out there helping people, and you get so much back from those people. I think they feel they get a lot done in terms of us putting tarps on roofs or cleaning their gutter for them – but the big thanks that you get from the people, and the look on their faces going ‘Oh, wow; someone’s helping’ is really fantastic. You get back more than you ever put in, I feel.”
Mr Nolan’s SES work has taken him outside the ACT. Shortly after enlisting, he went to Queensland to help clean up after Cyclone Yasi. “I’d never seen a cyclone before. And you go: ‘Wow’. First off, you say: ‘What’s the problem?’ Until you realise that all the green stuff is normally standing up, not on the ground.”
He also led contingents assisting in the 2015 East Coast Low storms that struck Sydney and Newcastle.
“There’s a spot for everybody in the SES. Doesn’t matter how qualified you feel you are, and how physically strong you think you aren’t.”
Deanne Callaway: Neighbourhood fire preparation
Deanne Callaway has been with the ACT Fire and Rescue Community Fire Unit in Chapman since 2007. The CFU looks after blocks of streets near possible firegrounds, preplanning and preparing homes before Fire and Rescue or the RFS arrive.
“We keep the drains clean; we get the standpipes and hoses ready to wet everything down; and we try to get the community to understand about fire control in their yards,” Ms Callaway said.
During last year’s bushfires, she and her fellow CFU volunteers kept their keys in their hand and their kit by the front door in case the fire came closer. At one point, the blaze was 12 km from her street.
“We could see it from our house. If it comes, it doesn’t take long; 12 km is not far for a fire. But we were lucky enough. The fire was being pushed across; it wasn’t coming towards us.”
Through volunteering with the CFU, Ms Callaway has gotten to know her neighbours – including who has swimming pools (to fill hoses in a hurry). The CFU has also held barbecues; some locals were not aware the CFU existed.
Ms Callaway works part-time, but spends much of that time volunteering – at her school’s canteen and treasury, or fundraising through the Salvation Army and the Red Cross.
“If everybody just does a little bit, then the community can run really well,” she said.
Alex von Brandenstein: Cartographer
Alex von Brandenstein makes the operational and tactical maps used in natural disasters, and by the police in search and rescue missions.
A professional cartographer, he joined the ACTESA Mapping and Planning Support (MAPS) team in 2009 when it was set up after the Victorian fires. He was working at Geoscience Australia at the time.
“Going from regular mapping to emergency management was quite exciting,” he said. “You’ve got your normal day job, where you use your normal skill set. You get to apply that skill set into an emergency management context. All of a sudden, you’re put into a pressure environment needing to deliver the goods, to help out people in distress, or who need help, or assisting saving property.
“You end up with a wholesome feeling; you’re giving back to the community. I think it gives you a lot of colour and diversity in your life.”
Mr von Brandenstein provided planning and public information maps for the Orroral Valley fire last year, and was also involved with the Michelago and Bega Valley fires. During the Queensland floods this year, he helped the Red Cross plan where people would be moved into assembly halls, where humanitarian aid work would be stationed, and where sandbagging should happen.
The MAPS team recruits spatial or mapping scientists.
“It takes another dimension to them to become someone who is deployed in emergency context,” Mr von Brandenstein said. “Undertaking mapping is not necessarily a stressful job, but apply emergency management over the top of that, and then you need to turn maps around quite quickly to a professional standard. We need people who are both good in terms of their skill, but can also take the heat (pun intended).”
Wear Orange Wednesday
To mark National Volunteer Week, the ACT SES will take part in a Neuron scooter parade around Lake Burley Griffin on Wednesday at 12.30pm.
In honour of Wear Orange Wednesday, GG’s Flowers (Farrer) will offer orange blooms for ACTSES members, and Gungahlin Lakes and Ainslie Football Club will fly their orange flag and serve orange sweet treats.
Telstra Tower, City Walk, Canberra Times Fountain, Questacon and Malcolm Fraser Bridge will be lit up orange in the evening.
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- Survey finds volunteering delivers health, career benefits, friendships
- Confidence in government declines among voters