IT’S not at all surprising to hear that a member of the O’Connor family of Wonthaggi has been accorded the rare honour of an Australian Fire Service Medal (AFSM) in the Queen’s Birthday honours at the weekend.
Current CFA Bass Coast Group Officer, Damien O’Connor, was the grateful recipient but he was quick to acknowledge that the award brings honour to his extended family, many of whom are involved, and to everyone at the local brigade.
Officially a member of the Wonthaggi Fire Brigade for 33 years, Damien doesn’t remember a time when he wasn’t up at the CFA shed of a Sunday with his father Phil and mother Mary, both long-time members and key volunteer personnel.
“Dad’s a life member and former captain and mum was the Group Communications Officer for over 20 years so we didn’t have summer holidays. It was fire season and we couldn’t be away.
“That’s just the way it was.”
It’s a testament to the responsibility of service that all firefighters take on when they join the CFA.
These men and women absolutely must turn up in an emergency, even at a time of celebration or crisis in their own families, when life and property are at risk locally, or like Damien and his mates did to help other communities on Saturday, February 7, 2009, the blackest day in Victoria’s history.
“Black Saturday is the standout of course. That particular day we were among the first trucks out of Bass Coast headed into the Cranbourne area,” said Damien.
“We were going out as strike teams to that area but at that stage we didn’t realise the scale of the fire across the state and the fact that resources were very thin on the ground with everything called into play.”
In other words, they were going into an area where there was no back up.
On that day a number of smaller fires on Melbourne’s south-east interface, in particular the Harkaway and Upper Ferntree Gully fires, could have caused severe damage, the latter having had the potential to run into the Dandenong Ranges. In total, seven houses were destroyed in what was considered a great save by the brigades involved.
“That’s where your training comes in plus we’d had the Delburn fire (Mirboo North-Boolara) the week before so we’d been going for a long time.
“We’ve learned a lot since then with new systems on the trucks and a focus on crew protection training, and hopefully the community has learned a lot as well.”
There were 173 lives lost on that day and areas like Marysville will never fully recover.
Damien said he has received a lot is calls of support since the announcement.
“Bill Watson, one of our members now, received his Australian Service Medal when he was at Ferntree Gully and I also had a call from Rick McKay over at San Remo, plus several others from medal recipients elsewhere in the State.”
It’s a big deal. It’s Wonthaggi’s first such medal.
The CFA has hailed Damien’s award as “capping a lifetime as a CFA Wonthaggi firefighter” while also acknowledging his family heritage, saying in a media release that Damien has “CFA blood flowing in his veins”.
“I remember the old man heading off during the Ash Wednesday fires and the stories that came back, and dad being gone all night when the Union Theatre in Wonthaggi was destroyed by fire.”
It’s been a similar experience for his own family, said the CFA.
“It is a sacrifice, so the medal really belongs to the family – and to my brigades. I couldn’t have done it without either of them,” he said.
“I’ve been very fortunate – I have the best brigades in the whole state, some really great, down-to-earth people.
“While jumping on the back of a truck used to be part of the excitement, these days the greatest driver is the people and the brigades,” Damien said.
“To be able to deliver a fire truck to a brigade is what keeps me going these days,” he said, although he’s still very much an active firefighter, turning out with his home brigade, Wonthaggi, which is seeking volunteers at the moment.
The Australian Fire Services Medal nomination states that “Damien goes out of his way to share his knowledge and skills in order to develop existing and future crew leaders, and Brigade Officers, as well as members of partner agencies”.
“Damien has a reputation for driving continuous improvement and positive change. His dedication and in-depth knowledge have encouraged the Bass Coast brigades to be proactive and innovative with initiatives including the acquisition of an All-Terrain Vehicle to provide transport for crew and equipment to otherwise inaccessible areas.”
He was one of only five CFA recipients of the Australian Fire Services Medal.
Another three CFA members received Order of Australia (OAM) medals in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for their outstanding service to the community.
CFA Chief Executive Officer Paul Smith congratulated the recipients on their outstanding achievements.
“CFA is incredibly proud of its volunteers and career firefighters, and it is wonderful to see some of our longest-serving members recognised with the highest orders in the country,” he said.
CFA Acting Chief Officer Garry Cook thanked the recipients for their contribution in making Victoria stronger and safer.
“We are fortunate as an organisation to have so many outstanding people who devote a large part of their life to the protection of lives and property in their communities,” he said.