“Dad really urged me to join CFA, which I did in 1997,” says Pip, who became the first operational female firefighter in Tallarook brigade. “I told the brigade executive that I wanted to get on the big red truck. I was so lucky I came into a brigade with a group of blokes who embraced that. There were three significant standouts who gave me extra mentoring. I just shut up and listened and took my lessons.
“I joined up with a group of people and it wasn’t long before the introduction of minimum skills, it was a great leveller.
“I went to lots of incidents but then, in 2002, our property was burnt out. I was part of an emergency from go to whoa and I watched what we’d learned as firefighters all come together – I saw its practical application to what was most important to me. It cemented my commitment to CFA.
“It also gave me a fantastic insight into the feelings of a survivor. We had gawkers driving up our drive and around our paddocks. I couldn’t believe it!”
Tallarook was in the first echelon of responders to the Kilmore fire on Black Saturday but the brigade’s average workload is 80 call outs a year. Pip was elected captain in the middle of 2009. (Pip is also a CFA employee, recently working as Regional Finance Officer for District 12 and 13 looking after 110 brigades.)
“My dad was so proud,” she says. “We’re practical people in our family and we’re prepared to put our hat in the ring.
“Being captain is about juggling personalities and processes without dropping any of the pieces. People management is a big part of the job and if you don’t do that, well you’re behind the eight ball. You’ve got to have a good working relationship with everyone and be approachable and available.
“It can be a hard slog and long nights but you have to laugh! Phone calls come out of the blue and you learn confidential information about someone but that means that someone trusts you. You have to be a safe deposit box.”
Pip is in the process of doing a human resources review of the brigade while the brigade management team is rejigging the roles. There are currently about 85 members in Tallarook including 11 juniors and the team is keen to re-balance the workload.
“We can’t just have six people doing the heavy lifting,” says Pip who also doubles as Mitchell Shire Group secretary. “The great job shouldn’t be done at the expense of ourselves so we’re asking people to step up one notch.”
On the other hand, one of the many positive qualities of Tallarook brigade is the way it is a true community cross section. “It can be hard in a small community,” explains Pip, “because people have often made up their minds about other people. There are always cliques. What’s great about our brigade is that we’ve got people from every social level. There’s an environmental side; we’ve got CEOs and MPs and educators, farmers, self-employed business people and students.”
The imminent arrival of a new tanker will put all Tallarook members on “a level playing field,” says Pip “It’s the introduction of industrial-scale technology into the brigade and we’ll all go through the tanker training together.
“It’s been a full circle of learning, evolving and discovering.
“I feel very honoured to be Captain and I’m very proud of our brigade for electing its first female Captain. It’s a great snapshot of how the times have changed. We’re more open. I’m very proud to have inspired at least five other women to join our brigade and become operational.
“The Captain’s role doesn’t belong to me. If other people are nominating for the role in the future, that means we’re working.
“Women know they don’t have to know everything. It’s about capability. Recognise the skills you already have. There’s an enormous amount of support and encouragement in CFA, especially in the past five years. I think they’re seeing the benefits of the women who came before.”
Pip is happy for anyone thinking about stepping into a CFA brigade leadership role to contact her for a chat. She can be reached through District 12 headquarters on 5799 1517.