Australia

The all-Indigenous firefighting crew breaking down barriers - just by going to work

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For NSW's first Indigenous firefighting crew, being strong community role models means more than just fighting fires.

The inner-Sydney suburb of Redfern has been the site of many historic moments for Indigenous Australia, and now its small fire station has become home to another.

Fire and Rescue NSW’s (FRNSW) first-ever all Indigenous crew was formed earlier this year and has already made its mark on the community. 

And for those in the history-making line-up, the job is about more than just responding to emergencies. 

“We’re breaking down stigma with just this platoon, that a full Indigenous crew can go out and help in the community and work together to break down any barriers with fire and rescue,” firefighter Lance Tighe told SBS News. 

NSW's first all Indigenous firefighting crew say the job is about a lot more than turning up to emergencies.
NSW's first all Indigenous firefighting crew say the job is about a lot more than fighting fires.
SBS News/Maani Truu

Growing up in the NSW regional town of Moree, Mr Tighe, 34, said he didn’t see Indigenous firefighters on the back of a truck - and that’s why an all-Indigenous crew is so important.

“It helps these young Indigenous boys and girls that come and have a look at Redfern Fire Station, to know that there are a few Indigenous boys in here that can come out and have a chat, and represent them as a people,” he said.

“Going out into a few of the houses with the Aunties and Uncles, they need working smoke alarms, it’s stuff like that we can do as well as just being out and about working with the community.”

Redfern is an iconic suburb for Indigenous Australians in Sydney and the site of national protests and gatherings since the 1960s.

Fire and Rescue NSW's station in Redfern.
Fire and Rescue NSW's station in Redfern.
SBS News

For firefighter Steve Dingle, 38, the prospect of an all-Indigenous crew was enough for him to swap stations and make the move to Redfern, despite living an hour-long commute away in Penrith.

“It’s a bit of a fair hike for me but I jumped on board straight away,” he said.

“I think it’s just great to have this for people in this community especially.”

Firefighter Lance Tighe hopes there will be more all Indigenous fire crews in the future.
Firefighter Lance Tighe hopes there will be more all Indigenous fire crews in the future.
SBS News

Mr Dingle said part of the job is tackling the stigma that can exist around people in uniforms, whether it be police, health professionals or fire and rescue officers. 

“The representation of Indigenous men especially, in jobs like this, is just great for kids to see,” he said.

The representation of Indigenous men especially, in jobs like this, is just great for kids to see.

- Steve Dingle, Firefighter 

“Growing up, my dad was a great role model to me, he worked hard … but you didn’t see many Aboriginal people in jobs like this, in firefighting and the police, it’s great to see.

“And the kids actually enjoy seeing us going around the community and engaging with them and knowing that they have something to strive for.”

During one hour at the station several Redfern residents, both young and old, stopped by to share a joke with the crew and have a look inside the truck.

Steve Dingle said he became a firefighter because he wanted to be a positive role model.
Steve Dingle told SBS News he became a firefighter because he wanted to be a positive role model.
SBS News

Firefighter Blake Mans, 28, who was filling in from another station, said he could see the community becoming more comfortable to approach the crew with issues or to ask about getting into the job themselves.

“We are not even doing much, we are just turning up to work, and they [young people] just want to be like you,” he said. 

All three of the firefighters SBS News spoke to entered the job through the Indigenous Fire and Rescue Employment Strategy (IFARES) program.

The program seeks to increase Indigenous participation in fire and rescue services by offering a six-month course in partnership with TAFE NSW that introduces candidates to the skills needed on the job before formally applying with FRNSW.

Once the program was introduced, it was always the goal to bring together a full Indigenous crew in Redfern, hopefully laying the groundwork for more crews to follow.

For Blake Mans, the best part of the job is building relationships within his crew and the wider community.
For Blake Mans, the best part of the job is building relationships within his crew and the wider community.
SBS News

“Redfern is known for Aboriginal movements. We had the first ever AMS [Aboriginal Medical Service]," Mr Tighe said.

"To actually have a fire station in Redfern with a full Indigenous crew … it’s another barrier that we’ve broken, another boundary that we’ve stepped forward with.” 

“Not many people can say they wake up and love going to work, and I can say that every morning.”

NAIDOC Week is marked 7-14 July and celebrates the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. For more stories on NAIDOC celebrations around the country go to sbs.com.au/nitv/naidoc

Would you like to share your story with SBS News? Email yourstory@sbs.com.au

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