The ACT Emergency Services Agency (ACT ESA) has celebrated International Women’s Day (IWD) by praising the everyday women who provide emergency management services to the Canberra community.
This year’s IWD theme is ‘Choose to challenge’, encouraging people to call out gender bias, inequality, stereotypes and to help forge an inclusive world.
In 2015, the Minister for Police and Emergency Services launched the ESA’S Women in Emergency Services Strategy to increase and develop women in the ACT’s emergency services. While there has been an increase across the four services – ACT Ambulance, ACT Fire & Rescue (ACTF&R), ACT Rural Fire Service (RFS) and ACT State Emergency Service (SES) – there is still a male-centric stereotype attached to the work.
Firefighter Merrin Starr joined ACTF&R five years ago after craving a job that was physical and allowed her to work with the community. While she loves her job, she said young women need to see women on firetrucks “so they can actually visualise that it’s an option for them when they do grow up”.
“We need to change that at a young age so they can have their dreams and aspirations to grow up and be a firefighter … I didn’t know when I was young that it was an option.
“There’s not a lot [of women] but it’s increasing, which is really good. I think we’re up to 18 women out of 350 people.”
For Brooke Turner, a Deputy Captain with the ACTRFS at Molonglo Station, when she walked into her first training session as a bushfire fighter 2015, she saw a sea of men.
“I was little daunted,” she admitted.
Six years later, Ms Turner still loves volunteering and said the number of women in ACT RFS has gone up.
“We’re luckier we have a few more [women] than average I believe. The average is about 20 to 25% and we have more along the lines of 30 to 35% … it’s really fostered a culture for women,” she said.
“We’re getting more women; they see the support network and we’re able to address any issues that are individual to us.”
Ms Turner said she volunteered “to get more of a challenge and learn new things”. In her role as a Community Education Coordinator, she enjoys meeting the local little kids and educating them about “how they can be their own firefighter”.
“Especially a lot of the little girls that come up, you can see they’re a little bit shy at first, but their face brightens up when they see a female is in the firefighter gear,” she said. “They can transfer Fireman Sam which I knew as a kid, with only males, to Fireman Sam now with lots of females.”
Mapping volunteer Giovanna Lorenzin has been working with the Mapping and Planning Support Group (MAPS) for 12 years, collecting intelligence information from the fire grounds and the aerial survey to help plan how to fight fires. Said she at MAPS “there’s a good balance of women to men”.
Ms Lorenzin has been working with MAPS since it was established in 2003 in response to the Canberra bushfires. Her message to young women is “don’t be afraid to take on opportunities as they come up”.
“We all can do whatever we want. Volunteering is a good way of starting out in a career because volunteering gives you the skills and connections that can be used to get a career in that field,” she said.
Alyssia Tennant has been volunteering with the SES at Gungahlin for about a year and said her time there has been a “whirlwind”.
“I finished university a few years ago, I’ve been working full-time for a little while and I had gotten into a good rhythm, so I had some free time to give. It just seemed like a good opportunity,” she said.
Ms Tennant said she wanted to join the SES after volunteers helped her with her car which was destroyed during the January 2020 hailstorm that shook Canberra. While she is still new in her role, she has seen a slow increase in female volunteers.
“There are more male volunteers, but I think we’re slowly seeing increasing women joining and that’s been really good,” she said.
Ms Tennant believes one of the barriers to female participation in every industry “is being able to visibly see women doing the same thing”.
“I think part of it is showing that there’s women in the service and making it seem accessible and seem like something that’s worth while doing,” she said.
“One of the most important things, and I think International Women’s Day is a good chance to reflect on this, is that the emergency services can’t do what we do and be operational unless we have women in the service.
“Particularly in the SES, we really need to reflect the communities that we serve.”
For more information about ACTESA, visit https://esa.act.gov.au
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