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Bowra's consummate crisis crew: doing much more than fighting fires

Retained firefighters/community first responders Andrew Draper, Joe Cheeseman, Jo Pennington and Station Commander Max Duncan
Retained firefighters/community first responders Andrew Draper, Joe Cheeseman, Jo Pennington and Station Commander Max Duncan

There's more to these firefighters than meets the eye.

Yes, they're the muscle you call in when your house goes up in flames. You're also just as likely to meet them if you've been in a crash.

And now, their reassuring faces are the ones you might see first when your ticker stops ticking over.

Since May last year the Bowraville Fire and Rescue crew has been an official Community First Response team too. And they've attended around 250 medical emergencies around the district since they "went live" 18 months ago.

With the nearest NSW Ambulance station around 15km away, their new role has often been shaving minutes off local response times. And in a medical emergency like a heart attack, timing is crucial.

"Every minute delayed giving someone CPR can mean all the difference," retained firefighter and community first responder Andrew Drapersaid.

Even just giving someone aspirin can lessen the time spent in hospital recovering, which frees up a hospital bed for someone else too.

The first documented first responder program in Australia began in 1991 on international QANTAS aircraft and in their major Australian terminals.

Since then it's been adopted by community organisations and rescue services all over the country, but especially in rural and remote areas.

Station Commander Max Duncan said Bowraville is now one of 13 NSW Fire and Rescue stations to have taken on the additional role for their community.

He said he first noticed a need for the service about 10 years ago.

"We were getting about 160 priority jobs a year - quite a high number - which showed a need for a rapid first response medical service," he said.

At times it was frustrating when we had someone going into cardiac arrest here in town, and needed to wait for an ambulance to come from Nambucca or Macksville, when we had a rescue team right here.

The Solutions Brokerage in 2017 instigated the improvement of medical services around Bowraville, and it was decided then that the Bowra townies should wear more than their firefighter and rescue hats.

The crew started training with NSW Ambulance in March last year, and graduated with their Certificate II in Emergency Medical Response.

They're now trained to intervene when someone is having a heart attack, and are able to do stroke assessments. In major trauma situations, like car crashes, they're also able to help with spinal and pelvic injury management, administer pain medication, and take readings for blood pressure and blood sugar levels, among other skills.

"But 80 per cent of what we do is patient care, with minimal treatment," Max said.

Sometimes as soon as we arrive you can see people relax and their blood pressure improves.

Their ability to manage a crisis and report their assessments to arriving paramedics is a great help to the efficiency of the response and health outcome for the patient/s.

"We come in, take control of the scene by calming bystanders, make an assessment and provide clear communication back to the ambos," Max said.

"Our incident management experience really complements this role well."

And their new knowledge helps them to assist in an emergency in a more holistic way.

"If someone's trapped, we understand how delicate the rescue needs to be, and at the same time know how critical the patient is," Max said.

Shortly after returning to the station after that rescue, a new-to-towner pulled up asking where the medical centre was.

"Then he holds up his bloody arm and says 'I've cut me hand with a chainsaw'. We were quickly able to stop the bleeding and administer pain medication," Max said.

Another recent case in point of their effectiveness was when a local suffered anaphylaxis after an allergic reaction. Instead of them needing to be driven to the hospital, they were able to be treated at the much closer Bowra Fire Station.

And there are other benefits of the new symbiotic relationship between the firies and paramedics.

With four in a fire crew - compared with the two in an ambulance - the extra pairs of hands come in ... handy.

"We know their kits and their vehicles inside and out. We often drive their ambulances from the scene, freeing the two paramedics up to be with the patient in the back," Max said.

One of the medical kits the crew carries on board their fire truck

One of the medical kits the crew carries on board their fire truck

"And we might get called to a situation that sounds serious, but when we arrive we find out it's not - we can pass that info on to the ambos so they can attend another call if they need to. It just helps them prioritise more critical jobs," retained firefighter/community first responder Jo Pennington said.

"We're a very good triage tool. And the reports we've had back from NSW Ambulance have all been supportive," Max said.

Response from locals has been overwhelmingly positive too.

"The community now expects us to be there," Max said.

"There's still the odd case when someone says 'what are you doing here, I called the ambos not the firies'. But we're able to build a rapport with them and win them over quite quickly - they soon get over the fact we came in a big, red truck."

Coming from a health background, Andrew Draper said he's really relishing his new role because of that direct relationship he can now build with people needing help.

"Being a fireman, you sometimes feel disjointed from the community. When there's a fire you're concentrating on putting it out, not on the people affected," he said.

Now we see the community, we talk to the community, and we listen. I find the medical side of things is more rewarding because you see that human outcome more.

New recruit Joe Cheeseman just finished his training on Monday and is keen to wear his multiple hats.

"I started out in RFS, and thought for a while about joining Fire and Rescue but couldn't fit it in with work. Then in November I thought, bugger it, I'll give it a crack. The fact we have medical capabilities too is great - it's just more ways to help the community," he said.

The Bowra station team is on the hunt for some other fresh faces to join the crew.

Jo Pennington joined the station in May last year and says she loves her job for three reasons: "It's challenging - I've got to use my brain; there's a lot of variety; and I love being a part of this crew - they're so supportive, it's really like another family".

It's nothing like anything I've ever done before. And I really didn't know how I would react until I was in the situation. But I'd recommend others to give it a go.

Max said there's often hesitation from locals because they don't see themselves measuring up in times of crisis.

"But the conversation we want to spark is 'yes you can - you can do this'," he said.

"And, doing this job, you become a more resilient person, prepared for life's challenges.

"This is a great flexible part-time job for people who work from home with a couple of days' availability, or for stay-at-home mums and dads - it's the perfect way to give back to the community while the kids are at school."

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