Country Fire Authority (CFA) brigades across Victoria have continued protecting the community throughout the pandemic, but restrictions have meant members have had to find new ways to stay connected.
Edithvale Fire Brigade has navigated these changes by effectively switching all formal and informal meetings to web-based video conferencing so that its 130 members can stay in touch.
Edithvale Firefighter Andrew Fenwick has been leading the brigade’s weekly social catch-up, which has kept many members feeling close to each other despite the circumstances.
“During these sessions we try not to talk too much about CFA because it’s all about members just casually catching up with each other and talking about our week,” Andrew said.
“We have a bit of fun and come up with different activities like trivia and show and tell to keep everybody engaged.
“Some of these activities give people the chance to show other members something about them that others didn’t know they had an interest in and that’s a great driver of discussion.”
Andrew mentioned there has been gradual growth in participation since remote meetings began and hopes this growth will continue.
“Some members have started out quieter than others because video chats can take some getting used to, but everyone is slowly building their confidence with it and communicating more,” Andrew said.
“We try to offer people the chance to contribute with their own ideas for different activities as well which allows people to be doing what they want to do.”
While restrictions are in place, people can often feel isolated from their friends, family and CFA colleagues, so Andrew said it’s been crucial to offer a platform for everyone to see each other.
“We can’t go to trainings and can’t meet in person so people really miss interacting with one another,” he said.
“Members have provided really positive feedback about what we’re doing. It’s really helping some people pull through these tough times,” Andrew said.
“There are members in a variety of different situations; some are young and live alone or have lost work and can’t see their friends and family.
“So it’s really important we continue doing this to bring us together and be there for each other as a brigade.”
The brigade has added 34 new members since the summer season.
Firefighter Tristan Beverley has led the recruitment process for the new members via Zoom.
“When restrictions came into place we planned for our new recruits to do their interviews over Zoom and from there we’ve been able to adapt a lot of the learnings to this format,” Tristan said.
“We’ve been doing a lot of engagement and trying our best to have them mix in with other members despite not being able to meet face-to-face.
“We’ll be looking at commencing training in the next couple of weeks. That’ll be taking a look at a few different courses and theory-based information they’ll need to be operational members.”
Tristan acknowledged there are limitations to video conferencing, but looks forward to when the brigade can meet the fresh faces in person.
“It can be challenging to really get to know them. I’m excited to meet these people in person eventually, but it can be difficult to have the same interactions through video chat as you would in face-to-face,” Tristan said.
Members have expressed their desire to continue utilising this software as common practice for future brigade meetings.
“Meeting and learning remotely has been a good experience in many ways,” Tristan said.
“For example there are courses we get our new recruits to complete that could be satisfactorily completed by remote learning, rather than travelling to do it in person.
“We’ve been able to teach some of our members who otherwise wouldn’t know how to use this application and they’ve become quite confident.
“It’s great to see everybody comfortable with being able to log on, join the video chat and be fully engaged and have a laugh with everyone.”
Captain of Edithvale Fire Brigade, Graham Fountain, was proud of his members for their keen effort to stay connected.
“It’s been great for our members to drop-in for an informal catch up, have a chat and play some trivia or a variety of other games,” Graham said.
“The leadership group has been able to take a step back during this process to allow other members run these sessions, which has been a success and given others a chance to take on more responsibility.
“Without the video conferencing software it would have been a lot harder to maintain the strong culture and member retention of our brigade and keeping them motivated.”