Behind the line of fire

Originally published with City Journal News: http://thecityjournal.net/news/behind-the-line-of-fire/

It was a hot afternoon in February 2014, in the beautiful Victorian town of Bonang, East Gippsland. Darren Johnson and his crew-mates from the Upper Ferntree Gully Fire Brigade were making their way through the town, checking the area before strong winds would blow a ferocious wall of flames in their direction. Johnson, knocking on door after door, was marking residents who were staying or leaving their property on a map. “There is every chance we will not get to you,” he would tell nervous home owners. The high speed of the fire-front and the limited number of firefighters meant they had to warn people; it is a firefighter’s job to be brutally honest.

“We may not be able to get to you when the fire comes through,” Johnson says to a middle aged woman who is the owner of a large property. “What is your plan?” It was a familiar scenario for Johnson, a volunteer firefighter since 2009. “Don’t kill yourself getting here,” the owner replies. “It is my property.” Johnson marks the word ‘staying’ on the map.

The crew continue to ask the woman questions about her fire plan, her fall back point and her place of last resort. They need to know where she will be if she can no longer defend her property against the merciless flames.

“To ask that is fairly confronting,” Johnson says. “In the back of your mind you know the information you are gathering will tell you where to look if the worst happens.”

“I am prepared to die defending my property, I don’t expect you to” the owner had said.

Johnson has worked at the scene of countless bush-fires. But the Bonang woman’s statement had a lasting impact. He described the response as confronting, something that sticks with you; “like you always remember your first fatal.”

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Darren Johnson and the District 13 Strike Team at Lancefield, October 12 2015.

He tells me this story leaning against a rugged wooden bench, his legs resting against a row of bright yellow drawers. There are no chairs in Johnson’s ‘office’, what is really the back shed of the Upper Ferntree Gully fire station. Red and white hoses cover the bench tops, and oil, cleaning products, screwdrivers and chainsaws rest on the shelves above. “It’s not much of an office,” he says. But it seems a practical one for a Third Lieutenant and Station Apparatus Officer. A communication radio hums with static in the background. The loud rumble of a train passing less than 80 metres from where we stand forces a pause in our conversation.

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Darren Johnson at the Upper Ferntree Gully Fire Station.

As members of the Country Fire Authority (CFA), volunteers are often exposed to potentially traumatic or stressful incidents. All members have different responses to tragedy and deal with the emotional burden of constant exposure to trauma in unique and individual ways.

The jobs that hit home the hardest are ones where there is real tragedy; loss of possession, injury or loss of life. The memories that haunt Johnson are the ones he tries to forget; they are too painful to be lingering around. He pulls a business card from the brown leather wallet in his pocket and explains how he had scrunched the memory of Bonang up into a little ball and shoved it right down to the bottom of his bucket. “But if you keep doing that,” I ask, “won’t the bucket overflow?” “That is what the card is for,” he explains and pats the side pocket of his navy shorts. “If you have a moment where you are feeling like that, put your hand up for help.”

The CFA offers peer-support, an Employee Assistance Program, and chaplaincy to support brigade members in managing their mental and emotional health. A Critical Incident Debriefing occurs on return to the station from a potentially traumatic scene. Johnson explains if they have a “really bad job” the counsellors will be at the station even before the crew returns. Ferntree Gully CFA volunteer Graham Crichton says for something really serious the crew will go back to the station to do a de-brief.

Crichton has spent 32 years as an active firefighter. It is something he has always enjoyed doing. “And you know,” he says, “there is a good old saying – if you want to feel good about yourself, do something for somebody else”. When I ask him about the call outs he attended this week, he pauses, and rubs his freckled hands on his chin before recalling a car crash. “The jobs just melt into history, unless it is something that really sits in your mind. When you get a call you always think, ‘are there children involved?’ You always think ‘is it someone you know?’” Crichton has lived in Ferntree Gully for 49 years. He recognises there is always a chance the person who needs help could be someone he knows.

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I met Graham Crichton at the Ferntree Gully Library; they call it the library in the park.

The CFA acknowledges it is not only volunteers, but their family’s who are impacted emotionally by their work. Like volunteers, family members are also able to access free and confidential support services provided by the CFA. Johnson tells me he doesn’t speak to his wife about how he feels about traumatic call outs. “She doesn’t want to know,” he explains. She had once heard a briefing at the station before he was to go away on a long job. “It can get pretty graphic. It tells you what is going on in the area and potential hazards.” “I never want to hear another one of those,” she said after the briefing. Johnson pictures his wife at home “worrying like crazy” while he is out on the job. “It’s her thing, the less she hears the better. Counselling is open to the whole family of a firefighter.”

He knows without a doubt being out on a job worries his 13 and 15-year-old daughters, especially when away on a long strike team such as in Bonang. He may only be able to phone his girls quickly at night, if at all. Even then he tells them very little about the job, nothing that would make them worry. But the situation is the same in reverse. “I used to travel for work, so my wife and I are very attuned to not telling each other something that is going to make us worry. So if it is something I can’t fix over the phone, my wife doesn’t tell me. If there is something at home that is going on, I won’t get told about it.”

Both Johnson and Crichton make it clear to me being a CFA volunteer is very much a family commitment. “It would be pretty hard to do the job if you didn’t have family support and understanding,” Crichton explains. “It’s an understanding on everybody’s part. If you get involved, you are not joining a club, you are joining an essential service.” Crichton has three adult children and six grandchildren. “When the kids were younger, I guess it was often disappointing when we were out doing something as a family and you’d get a call.” Volunteering does impact on his family life, but he is greatly supported by loved ones.

Volunteering with the CFA is something Johnson had wanted to do since he was 19-years-old. Now 46, it has taken a long time for the commitment to fit into his lifestyle. A change in his position at work meant he would no longer be travelling for two weeks of the month, allowing him to join the CFA just before Black Saturday. “It was a hole that was missing in my life.” Like Crichton, a desire to serve the community drives his passion for the CFA. “It’s fulfilling,” he explains and smiles.

“I think my girls are proud to say their father is a firefighter,”Johnson says. His 15-year-old daughter is a junior member of the Upper Ferntree Gully brigade. Once 16, junior members can join the senior brigade and attend call outs as an active firefighter. “Would you want her doing that at 16?” If he has confidence in her, he won’t have a problem with it, he explains. “Well as a father I guess I am not going to feel too comfortable. But if it is something she wants to do I won’t stand in her way.” The brigade has had 16-year-olds join the senior brigade in the past. “Their family has to bring them down at 3 o’clock in the morning when the pager goes off,” he laughs, “now that’s a family commitment”.

Crew members constantly stream through Johnson’s office of supplies in search of screw drivers, chainsaws, and soap to wash the trucks. “My office is a flow through office,” he chuckles. A balding man steps into the shed. “Ooh, I am interrupting something, clearly,” he remarks. “It’s fine,” Johnson says, “I think I have had half the brigade through the room.” The man rummages through the shelves, “a young lady, that’s what it is.” The skin under Johnson’s eyes wrinkles as he laughs, “I thought it was me wearing shorts, which is a rarity”. At that moment, to me, their jovial spirit and sarcastic humour represents the deep love and respect the brigade members have for one another.

The CFA is a second family and a second home. “Once you step through that front door you are a fire-fighter and everyone is your friend,” Johnson explains. “Without any doubt some of my very best friends are in the CFA,” Crichton says. “And that is important. You couldn’t do it without close relationships with people.” On the job, firefighters hold each others lives in their hands. They work on a system of trust and teamwork. Johnson describes it as a “buddy system”. “If you are on the end of the line with the branch (hose nozzle), your backup is the hose dragger who is responsible to look up and watch for potential dangers.”

Being a volunteer firefighter has both its high and low points. “But there are a lot more highs than lows,” Johnson says. The low points are scrunched up into little balls and shoved to the bottom of a deep bucket. The high points are laughed about and remembered fondly; they are the bizarre and the beautiful moments.

Johnson climbed the ladder to the top of the tree in his thick yellow protective gear and heavy black boots. The cat growled and hissed while clawing and biting his outstretched hand. He could hear bellowing chuckles from below as the cat fell to the ground. He had let go when the defensive animal began wrestling free of his grip. The cat shot off after landing on it’s feet. Johnson made his way down the ladder to the sound of laughter below. Blood streamed from his hand when he ripped off his gloves. “The next three hours in the hospital were hilarious,” he recalls sarcastically. The cat had bitten through his thick gloves and deep into his finger. “It didn’t take to being rescued too kindly.” “You guys really do cat rescues?” the nurses at the hospital asked in disbelief. “Yes, really badly,” Johnson replied to their merriment. “You always remember your first fatal,” he explains to me, “ but you remember the funny ones too.”

“If someone asked you what it is like to be a firefighter, what would you tell them?,” I ask Johnson. “Is there a particular story that sums up what it is like?”
“I am a fire safe kids presenter,” he says. Children come to the station, the kindergarden attend quite regularly, and Johnson runs a session on fire safety. During one kinder visit he showed the children the fluffy brown teddy bears the brigade keep in the fire trucks. “They are called trauma teddies,” he explains to me. “So if we have a child that is in distress during a job, we give them a teddy.” “Why do you think we have a teddy bear on the truck?,” he asked the kinder children who were watching in awe. Johnson was met with dead silence and blank faces. One young boy raised a hand nervously. “Now why do you think we have a teddy bear on the truck?,” Johnson asked him. “In case you get lonely,” the boy replied. Johnson describes it as a beautiful moment. Like the man’s response at Bonang, it is a memory that will stay with him for eternity. Unlike Bonang, it is a memory that will stay out of the bucket of balled paper, it is one he will keep un- scrunched.

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A mural at the Upper Ferntree Gully Fire Station.

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