Women firefighters bring new skills and diversity to the Merredin brigade


The stereotypical image of the buff, oiled and semi-nude firefighters adorning the cover of calendars is a far cry from the volunteer firefighters you’d likely see in Western Australia’s eastern wheatbelt.

In Merredin, 12 of the 26 volunteer firefighters and support staff are women – a figure not duplicated in any other volunteer fire department in the state.

According to the Fire and Emergency Services Department, female volunteers make up just over 21 percent of the service.

Lt. Sheree Lowe has been campaigning for more women to volunteer for the Merredin Volunteer Fire and Rescue Service (VFRS) since she joined the brigade seven years ago.

“I joined in handing out water bottles, and now I’m the second in charge… it’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” Lt. Lowe said.

Having more female volunteers in Merredin changed the culture of the brigade, says Lt. Sheree Lowe.(

Provided: Sheree Lowe

)

Change long to come

To celebrate International Women’s Day in 2021, Lt. Lowe hosted a Ladies Day at the fire station.

Five of the 17 women who attended the event signed up to become volunteers.

As part of this campaign, Merredin VFRS has set up a childcare service to encourage more women to volunteer.

“There are so many great women in Merredin and I just couldn’t be bothered to wait until their kids were 18 before joining us, so we put this child care program in place.”

The babysitting program includes an after school pickup if required.

Lt. Lowe says the program has given people a way to volunteer for the brigade even if they “don’t really want to be at the end of a pipe.”

Seven women in various shades of yellow bushfire protective gear stand arm in arm in front of three large fire fighting tankers
Lt. Sheree Lowe (third from left) was part of an all-female crew who witnessed the Black Summer bushfires in New South Wales(

Provided: Sheree Lowe

)

More than physical strength

Focusing on qualities beyond physical strength has changed the diversity within the brigade.

Lt. Lowe believes the strategy could work for other brigades and workplaces.

“Strength is important, and a good level of fitness is important, but it doesn’t matter as much as a lot of people think – there are a lot of other things that matter more,” a- she declared.

“And she also has the gift of spreading that calm around her.

“In the kind of industry we’re in, someone who can stay calm in any situation like this is incredibly important to what we do.”

Lt. Lowe received an award last month from the Volunteer Firefighters and Western Australian Rescue Services for his efforts to recruit and retain women.

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