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Putting out the fires

There are not many professions that can boast having the general respect of the whole community: doctors, nurses, vets, lifeguards … When kids are asked what they want to be when they grow up, one of the most recurring answers would be: “A firefighter!” There is nothing quite like the appeal of the shiny red fire engine, the powerful water hose and the heroism of saving lives from house fires to ignite the imagination and admiration of children and adults alike.

Redfern Station Officer Peter Eastment (Photo: Sandra Beeston)
Redfern Station Officer Peter Eastment (Photo: Sandra Beeston)

It’s with a similar sense of excitement that firefighter Peter Eastment remembers his first firecall: “I was stationed at headquarters in the city, my first fire-call was down William Street towards Kings Cross, we drove down the wrong side of the road all the way and I thought: ‘How cool is this!’” Now a Station Officer, Peter Eastment has been a firefighter for 16 years and has been stationed in Redfern for three months. “I just wanted to serve the community. I didn’t want to become a policeman, or an ambulance officer. The fire brigade was a way of serving, I was in the rural fire service for years where I used to live, and I had an interest in firefighting, so I joined.”

Despite the tragedies that firefighters are often confronted with, there is also a lot of satisfaction to be found in the job. “The comradeship is a great part of the job, and wherever you go in the fire brigade you’ll find mates to depend on and have a great time with. I guess the adrenaline, you never know what you’re gonna get, you walk downstairs, and you see the screen and you don’t know whether it’s gonna be an automatic fire alarm or a car accident or a house fire, you don’t know… every job is different, so you just got to be on your toes. We do a lot of training for the job, and we have to keep our skills up to maintain a level of endurance,” Peter says.

Peter’s proudest moments were when he was able to rescue people from burning homes. However, most of the firefighter’s time is spent being called out on false alarms provoked by smoke detectors. “The average number of fire calls would be five to six per shift: most of it, four-fifths of them would be Automatic Fire Alarms (AFAs). The smoke alarm goes off, sends a signal and here we go!” He says that 95 per cent of the time, the alarm turns out to be false, provoked by dust in the detector or food left on the stove. “It has been a problem in the brigade for a long time. The AFAs use a lot of our resources, so we’ve got this group called the Automatic Fire Alarm Reduction Committee, and they’re looking at ways to reduce that and then to free up the resources.” He says, for example, that they are thinking of putting up the fine charged to building/apartment owners for sounding false alarms.

In the past few months there has also been a growing sense of frustration amongst firefighters, provoked by recent plans by the NSW government to temporarily close some fire stations due to a $64 million cut in the budget, and a number of firefighters organised protests last June to express their anger. “TOL” (Temporarily Off-Line) was set up by the government to cut in on the sick leave and overtime budget, so that when a fire station is offline, the brigade is only used to fill sick-leave vacancies. Peter Eastment says: “Redfern Fire Station has been identified as one of the TOL-ing stations, because we’re surrounded by other stations, like Alexandria, headquarters in Sydney, Pyrmont, Newtown, and so they can afford to take us offline basically. It’s quite a difficult one, but the fire brigade is trying to work through it.” However, according to a source from Fire & Rescue NSW, there is no plan at present to close Redfern Station completely.

Redfern Fire Brigade has shown itself to be very close to the community, with the inauguration last year of a mural painted by children to launch the Aboriginal Fire Safety campaign aimed at reducing Aboriginal deaths and injuries from residential fires. The brigade also goes out in the community to educate people. “We often go to pre-schools and schools [...] teach kids about bad fires, good fires, get down low, go-go-go, the fire escape plan, all those things that are crucial in a fire.” They also run a program called SABRE (Smoke Alarm Batteries REplacement), where they go to people’s homes and change the smoke alarms, to help, for example, elderly people, who have smoke alarms but can’t get up on their ladders and replace their batteries. “We encourage people to change the batteries in their smoke alarms when they put their clocks forward, as it happens every year, as a way to remember.”

So far Peter has had a positive impression of Redfern: “It’s settled down a lot this area, it’s settled down amazingly. It’s got a broad mix of social issues, I guess you could say, and the fire service tends to not look at race, creed and status in the community. We’re just here to do a job, put the fires out, we attend to the alarms and we go home.”

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