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What does it really take to be a firefighter?

Ashleigh Went

Just over a week ago, we had the honour of sharing with you the story of Kaye Bradtke, a senior firefighter at the Gungahlin Fire station.

Like many of you, I was just as impressed with her passion for her job and commitment to serving her community as I was with the benefits of her career.

Last Saturday, I attended the first of what will be a series of ‘Career Information Sessions’ with ACT Fire and Rescue. These information sessions for prospective applicants are just one of the ways that ACT Fire and Rescue encouraging more women to apply for their next recruit college in February 2016. In fact, they are the first Fire and Rescue agency in the nation to make a commitment to hiring 50 per cent female recruits in their next intake – so long as eight women can successfully meet the standards set for all applicants, whether male or female.

This was one of the things that really struck me about the recruitment process. Having a few friends who’ve undertaken the physical aptitude testing for the Australian Federal Police, I was expecting the ACT Fire and Rescue process to be similar in that the testing was scaled for women. However, because of the intensely physical nature of the job (having to wear a suit that weighs over 20kgs, carry containers of foam, pull hoses, scale ladders and operate life saving machinery such as the jaws of life), the standards are the same for all applicants.

Ashleigh taking part in the session.

Ashleigh takes part in the session.

More than anything, attending the session gave me an overwhelming sense of respect for our firefighters, as well as anyone aspiring to join this challenging yet rewarding career path.

To begin the day, I joined about 50 other women to hear from a range of ACT Fire and Rescue staff about the job, what it entails, the benefits and drawbacks and of course, the application process. There was a really balanced approach to the talks, including how rewarding it can be, but also how tough it is – mentally and physically. One senior firefighter spoke about how he’d had quite a romantic view of what the job would be, but realised it’s not fighting fires every day; it’s often attending motor vehicle accidents, automatic fire alarms (the kind where you’ve burnt your toast), hazardous material incidents and animal rescues. It was only when he’d made peace with the reality of the job that he really found a way to enjoy it.

That was a clear message from the day: this is not a career that is for everyone and the application process is rigorous. Only a small number of applicants are selected and they really are the strongest applicants, physically and mentally.

However, it is also a job that is enormously rewarding. In addition to saving lives and serving your community, there are fantastic working arrangements that include an impressive salary, leave arrangements including maternity leave, ongoing education, training and career development opportunities and the chance to work with a close-knit, passionate and supportive group of people.

During the session.

During the session.

After hearing from ACT Fire and Rescue staff we were separated into groups and taken through stations where we tried various components of the physical aptitude testing and heard about different elements of the job (and yes, I got to sit in the fire truck. Day made.) These included carrying hoses and heavy containers of foam, dragging the hose, and lifting hydraulic equipment.

We also got a tour of the West Belconnen fire station from the Station Officer. This was one of my favourite parts as it really gave you an insight into what the day-to-day life of a firefighter involves. We got to see the dormitories, gym, kitchen, offices, and the rooms where they store and change into their massive 20kg+ yellow suits. Hearing about the job, you really get a sense of just how tight-knit this community is. As firefighters work shift work, they spend a lot of time with their team: eating together, training together, working together and spending time between jobs, often debriefing about work.

In terms of the physical aptitude testing, I was really shocked at how difficult it is. I consider myself a reasonably fit person but if I had to sit the test tomorrow, I wouldn’t make it. It’s something that you would have to build up and work at every day, in order to be able to not just pass the test, but also carry out the duties of the job if you are successful in the recruitment process.

To give you an overview of what exactly the testing entails, here are the various stages of the Physical Aptitude Test (PAT):

  1. Balance Test
  2. Ladder Climb
  3. Tower Climb
  4. Vertigo Test
  5. Claustrophobia Test
  6. Hose Drag (50m hose Reel)
  7. Container Lift
  8. Hose Hold and Advance
  9. Hydraulic Equipment Carry
  10. Team Member or Victim Rescue

You’re also required to reach 9.6 on the ‘beep test’. You can find videos of each of the stages of the PAT on the ESA website.

Heavy lifting is one of the many duties involved.

Heavy lifting is one of the many duties involved.

What I found really challenging isn’t necessarily the weight of the items you’re required to lift, but their awkwardness. Picking up a 20kg barbell and lifting it above your head is significantly easier than picking up a container and lifting it to the top of a fire truck. The same goes for the hose drag: having used a prowler or sled in the gym I thought I would be prepared, but it’s maintaining your balance and momentum that proves really challenging. Lifting the Jaws of Life presented a challenge too, as you’re required to hold it upright at various points (and it is heavy).

If you’re afraid of heights, be prepared for a challenge. You’re required to climb a ladder and about six stories of stairs, while the Vertigo Testing requires you to lean out over a ledge at the top to identify an object at the bottom.

If you are interested in applying for the recruitment round in 2016, my advice would be to start training now. I would also definitely suggest you go along to one of the Career Information Sessions, which are a really great way to prepare and find out more about the whole process. You can also go into one of the fire stations and ask to speak with firefighters about how you can prepare (just be sure to call ahead). ACTF&R has a ‘Fit for Duty’ training document to help with your preparations. Visit esa.act.gov.au/actfr/careers/ and download the Fit for Duty training program for a range of strength and aerobic fitness activities you can undertake to get you ready for the PAT. Aim to improve your overall strength and fitness so that you’re best prepared to take on all stages of the testing.

I think the whole community would love to see more women in our fire stations, and now is the perfect time to apply. I wish you the best of luck in your application, and if you have any questions about my experience at the Career Information Session, please post them in the comments below.

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Ashleigh Went

HerCanberra ACTIVE Editor Ashleigh Went has a passion for all things health and wellness. As someone who loves champagne and cheese almost as she loves a sweaty workout, she's all about living a healthy, balanced lifestyle. She can usually be found with her nose in a book, planning her next adventure, in the gym or updating her Instagram @wentworthavenue. More about the Author