Over the past few years, local restaurant proprieter Azem Elmaz has become an integral and invaluable part of incident response in District 22.
Not only are the meals that Asem provides hot, tasty and high quality – they come with an extra serving of goodwill on the side since Azem won’t accept a cent for them.
Now equipped with a pager, Azem is ready to turn out at the drop of a hat.
This is exactly what he and his team did last Christmas day when it took them only 45 minutes to be on scene at a structure fire.
“Any time, 24 hours a day, if it’s a hot day or a cold day, that’s just what we do,” he says.
“The last job we went to was at the Tallygaroopna pub fire where we gave people chicken wraps and a hot coffee. The volunteers really appreciated it and it was great to put a smile on their faces.
“They are ordinary people but I’ve seen how they will drop everything when the pager goes off,” says Azem.
All the more remarkable is that CFA is just one of the community organisations and causes that Asem and his wife Jeihan get behind through their group People Supporting People .
Ray Stockwell, Mooroopna First Lieutenant and 2nd Deputy Group Officer at Sherborne Group, has got to know Asem over the past few years, first as a customer in his restaurant then in his capacity as group officer for the Shepparton Group.
“A few years ago our Operation Manager Steve Allen caught wind of the fact that Asem was looking for worthwhile local projects to sponsor,” says Ray.
“At the time the district was purchasing a floating collar tank [for helicopters to draw water from]. Asem ended up sponsoring the trailer for about $7,000 and has gone on to sponsor the fitting out of a new field command vehicle.
“Two years ago Azem mentioned that he was converting a bus into a catering vehicle, and at the same time District 22 – like many areas of CFA – was struggling to get enough meals to our troops.”
Azem’s organisation had soon completed training that allowed them to enter and operate on the fireground, and have since then attended a number of incidents including the 2006 campaign fires – initially in Shepparton and then around the district.
Catering on the fireground is essential not only to keep energy levels up but to make sure the troops remain hydrated.
And according to Ray the most remarkable aspect of this story is that Asem and his team don’t want to be paid for any of the work they do.
“The quality of the food they are serving is first class, but they don’t want to accept a cent for it,” he says,
“Though I did have to draw the line when he was trying to make them all lattes!”
At the recent flood event in Tallygaroopna, People Supporting People provided meals not only to CFA volunteers but to 150 members of the community who were filling sandbags. They were then seconded to SES and closed up shop for a few days, feeding a further 6,000 people.
“Of course he did accept payment for that, but then went on to put out thousands more meals for CFA and the community – all for free,” says Ray.
Azem Elmaz was born in Macedonia and moved to Australia 28 years ago, with 20 of those years devoted to setting up and developing People Supporting People and its work in the community. Three years ago he was named local citizen of the year in Shepparton.
Despite all they’ve done already, it’s unlikely that Asem and his team will be taking a break any time soon.
“There’s a fair bit coming up,” says Azem. “At the moment we’re working to build a truck, fitting it out to be ready. It’ll be good for the brigades and good for the community.”