For most of us, hearing the fire siren sound is something we hardly register. Sure, we might fleetingly recognise that someone in town has a drama happening, but for new recruits Amy Ferguson and Jamie Philip they know it can mean the difference between life and death.

The local station currently has 41 volunteer Urban Firefighters and around 10 Rural Firefighters and is always seeking new members, which is how 23-year-old Jamie and 28-year old Amy started, late last year. They are part of a group of six new recruits currently in training. Covid interrupted their scheduled training, but Amy will now attend her course and graduate to Firefighter this September, while Jamie’s course is not until May 2021.

Bright and bubbly, both women say that they have always enjoyed helping others and the fire service was the ideal choice. “There’s an element of excitement with Fire and Emergency that really appeals,” they say. Currently we have Firefighters at the brigade.

Amy is a personal trainer at the EA Networks Centre Gym, and clearly has the emergency services in her blood, with her dad a long-time rural firefighter. The physicality of being a firefighter appeals to her, as well as the opportunity to advance within the service. When the siren sounds, as long as there’s someone to cover her at work, she turns out, eager to be of use. “I can’t wait to graduate and know that I’m a fully-fledged, valuable member of the team.”  

Jamie and her partner, Nathan Speedy, are both in Fire & Emergency.  She has been in the service previously, and recently returned. Working for ANZCO Foods which is 12 kms out of town means that she can’t attend every callout, but her day starts and ends early, so by mid-late afternoon she’s ready to respond. Having her pager makes her feel like she is always poised, in a state of perpetual readiness.

If it’s excitement they crave, they’ve certainly joined the right service. The local fire service can get between 5-10 calls a week, and on particularly bad weather days such as the floods a couple of years ago, they have been known to respond to 25-30 calls on one day!  More than anything, it’s about being fast. A fire can consume a home in a matter of minutes, so it’s vital the crew is on site as soon as possible.  

But it’s not just about sirens, flashing lights and fires. Crews attend all manner of mishaps and accidents from cats stuck up trees to downed power lines, chemical spills, controlled burn-offs that get out of control and highway head-ons with multiple traumas. It’s not something they like to dwell on, but already, both have attended serious callouts. Jamie has been to a number of fatals since starting in 2017, and since her recent return. More recently, Amy has been to one.

For the most part though, its ongoing training. “We’ve done a lot of hose rolling, practising entries to houses, learning knots and lines and flushing stand-pipes,” they laugh. “There’s a lot to learn, and no two callouts are ever the same, so you have to be prepared for every possible scenario.”  

It hasn’t taken them long to pick up the ‘lingo.’ Abbreviations and acronyms that sound completely foreign, roll off their tongues. They talk about ‘watches,’ which they explain are a Sunday duty where several volunteers work at the station checking and cleaning the trucks and checking the ‘B.A’s (breathing apparatus suits); ‘PFA’s (private fire alarms including schools’ or businesses’ alarms); spreaders and cutters (used in motor vehicle rescues).

Although both are still new recruits, they have very clear, and quite different goals. Amy has her heart

set on becoming a career firefighter, possibly in Christchurch, while Jamie is ‘operational support.’ “Once I’m trained, my job will basically be to free up a fire fighter so he can get behind the hose and put out the fire.”  Her tasks will include traffic control, flushing hoses and preparing fire hydrants. She will also assist with the crucial task of monitoring how much air each fire fighter has in order to breathe safely while inside a building, before they need to exit.

There are currently five females in the Ashburton Fire & Emergency brigade, one Firefighter, one Recruit Firefighter, two Operational Support Firefighters and one Brigade Support(treasurer).  The women are keen to stress that for the most part they are expected to do their job the same as everyone else. “Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, and we all just pitch in and support each other.”  

There’s a strong sense of family at the local Fire and Emergency station. There are regular meetings, Sunday ‘watches’ and training nights to attend, and they also socialise together, often including extended families. “Sometimes it feels like we have 40 or 50 uncles!” they laugh. “They are family.”

It’s clear from their enthusiasm that these two inspiring young women are enjoying the challenge presented by their volunteer roles. “Volunteering is life changing. The sense of purpose and the feeling you get from helping others and giving back to your community is one of the greatest feelings you can experience. If people want to put something back into the community and they enjoy helping others, we would definitely say “go for it!”  

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Judy McAuliffe is a writer, and publisher Essence Mid Canterbury. Her experience in media is extensive and includes approximately 15 years as Creative Director for The Radio Network, writing, and managing the writing of radio advertising, mainly in Invercargill and Greymouth. In the late 1990’s she transferred to Christchurch, moving into an Account Management role with 91ZM. In 2007 she and a business partner set up Essence Mid Canterbury, very quickly adapting her radio-writing skills to print media. Judy became sole owner of Essence Mid Canterbury in June 2014. Judy is a ‘people person’ and has found her niche writing feature stories about the community she lives in and the people who live there. She is also available for freelance writing assignments.