“It’s no problem getting bums on seats,” agrees Captain Mick Newell. “We use the whole lot who turn up. You can max everything out without too much drama. The truck goes out with five crew and the majority of them would be between 17 and 25. We put four in the brigade-owned mobile – a Hilux dual cab. We use the pumper as a quickfill and we’ve got some good private appliances so you can help man one of those. That’s 15 people at an incident pretty quickly.”
The brigade in the Dunmunkle group has several active members who are still at school and one completing an apprenticeship. “Our policy is no pagers at school. You don’t leave school to fight a fire. Education is more important than being at a stubble fire than other people can attend instead of you.
“If you get them signed up at 16 they’ll be interested. Once they’re over 16 we take them to brigade training and burn-offs. We do a fair few of them along the railway – it’s worth about $600 a year to us – and you can simulate the real experience. We let our young people do the radio comms, squirt the water and feel the heat of the fire in a controlled situation. They’re trained up to Minimum Skills before they turn 18 so as soon as they’re of age they’re ready to go."
The brigade has an informal mentoring process. “There nothing written down,” continues Mick, “but there are some basic rules we stick by. There can only be two new members on the truck at one time. We put the responsibility on the crews to sort it out for themselves and people jump off the truck if they see that the mix isn’t right. If they get in a hot spot, they’ve got experienced crew members there.”
On 7 February 2009, the brigade attended the Remlaw fire where 11 structures were lost. “It was fully crewed straight away,” says Bob Hawkins. “I think it started at 12.30pm and we were ready by 12.36pm. We had crews on shifts for four days and we also crewed in Daylesford and Alexandra. We’re always ready to go on strike team duty and we’ve crewed teams to every big incident including the northeast fires and to NSW.”
All this mentoring and live action firefighting leads to engaged members keen to attend the monthly meetings. “The BMT [Brigade Management Team] gets together a couple of days before each of our meetings,” continues Mick, “so we can deal with what I call the rubbish. There’s not a big backlog. We keep the brigade meetings to 45 minutes and every seat around our table is full, new members included. If anyone from region comes over they get the hurry up if they talk too long.”
Lying in a broadacre cropping area, the brigade turns out about 15 times a year: five primary responses and 10 in support. In a town of 800 people, the brigade has 51 members, 43 of them active, 14 under 30 years of age and two operational women. There are eight crew leaders, four strike team leaders and 15 with Breathing Apparatus training.
Three members are DSE employees including Mick, a mechanic by trade, who “took a casual job to fill in a summer” and is now a plant operator. He’s planning to step down as captain due to what could be seen as a conflict of interest. He also doesn’t appreciate a conflict of interest when he’s relaxing at the local pub. “I try and keep the fire brigade and pleasure separate. You don’t want to plan a burn-off when you’re relaxing.”
Another marker of a well-organised brigade is the excellent relationship with local business. “A lot of businesses in town are owner operated,” continues Mick, “and each business has its own deal with its employees in the brigade. Some will put them on half pay and others will let them work off the time later."
Tylers Hardware, Newell Construction, Schier Cabinetmakers, Solomit Strawboard and two pubs all make a valuable contribution to the way CFA Murtoa goes about its business.
Bushfire awareness is high in town with the brigade siren triggered by the pagers. “We fought to keep the siren when pagers came out,” says Mick. “Dale [Russell] said we could keep it. People around town might put their head out and look around. They like to know what the brigade’s doing. The older generation especially love to know and they feel so much safer.”
About 10 local Juniors currently run under the Horsham banner but they will soon be the Murtoa running team. They’ll be heading full tilt towards inheriting a proud and vigorous brigade in a tight-knit community.