Firefighters expect the unexpected. Tony Brown’s first job as an on-call firefighter was at a block of units in North Goulburn where intruders had broken into a unit, stabbed a man to death, then set fire to the place.
“It was a case of mistaken identity,” Tony said. “There was a prison guard next door (the intended target). That was my first deceased I had ever seen.”
On-call firefighters are in demand throughout southern NSW. They balance full-time jobs, family commitments and their study with responding to fires and emergencies in their local communities.
A senior firefighter in Goulburn, Tony was previously an on-call firefighter for 22 years before becoming a permanent brigade member in 2016. He’s called on to relieve at any of 17 stations in the Region South Two zone – from Bowral to Tumut and Cowra.
Goulburn is the zone’s only station with permanent firefighters, others are staffed with on-call firefighters.
He said newcomers to the on-call ranks were paid a retainer to train and attend callouts.
“A lot of country towns struggle to have people with day-time availability, a lot of people work out of the town,” he said.
On-call firefighters respond to extraordinary events, as Tony did when fires were deliberately lit in Goulburn’s main street.
The most dangerous blaze destroyed Clint’s Crazy Bargains on the corner of Auburn and Market streets early in the evening of Saturday, 26 June, 1999. Flames and fumes generated so much heat that aerosol cans exploded, turning them into dangerous projectiles.
“They were coming out at me and landing between my feet and I remember standing on the other side of the street with a line of hose,” he said. “We never went inside (Clint’s), it was too dangerous.”
Two teenagers later charged with arson had set fire to cardboard leaning against a gas meter in a laneway at the rear of the building. Quickly melting, the meter’s pipe became a gas-fuelled flame-thrower. Toxic fumes swirled inside the building, a place Tony well remembered (he had worked at Donahue’s hardware store, the site’s previous tenant).
“The fuel load in there was astronomical. Donahue’s still owned or rented the upstairs section and kept all their paperwork there,” Tony said.
“Paul Donahue, who owned the store also owned Paul’s Home Timber and Hardware in Canberra. All their paperwork for seven years from the two stores was stored upstairs at Clint’s.”
Seventeen years later on 27 June, 2016, two arsonists struck at the Centrelink building in Auburn Street. But firefighters including Tony were much better resourced in protective gear to tackle the big fires.
When he first joined in 1995, firefighters didn’t have hoods to protect their head, face and neck, or high-tech gloves or helmets.
Protective equipment is one of many changes Tony has seen over the decades.
Today’s firefighters work in pairs. Every day they do drills with their equipment, double-checking it’s in working order. As soon as they jump into a fire truck responding to a call, two strap on breathing apparatus.
They’re expected to work while carrying 15-20 extra kilos of equipment and their fitness is tested annually. Don’t apply if you have high blood pressure or heart problems.
“Your body is under a lot of stress when in a working fire,” Tony said.
There are plenty of happy endings on the job too, such as the elderly woman he helped save when her two-storey home in Fitzroy Street, Goulburn, was well alight one night. Near the front door trying to escape, the ceiling had collapsed on top of her.
“The front door was deadlocked, so we couldn’t get through,” Tony said. “We gained access through breaking a lounge room window.”
The crew found the woman on the ground under a sheet of Gyprock which protected her from rising heat and smoke – and ultimately saved her life.
“As strange as it sounds, she was breathing in clean air,” Tony said. “You will find most people [trapped in a fire] a metre or two metres from an opening, they just get overcome by smoke and fumes and collapse.”
Tony’s boyhood dream was to be a firefighter. He now aims to become the station officer at Goulburn when current officer Darrell Law retires.
He also hopes the ranks of on-call firefighters will swell as they take up a lifesaving and life-changing role.