Diversity leader, firefighter, thriving in chaos.
It takes a special type of person to be a first responder. To witness tragedy, death, injury and unspeakable horror through everything from fires and floods, to accidents and acts of terror. But like many high-stakes vocations, those who choose to take on that responsibility are those who not only also thrive in chaos, but have an unwavering dedication to help their fellow human. Dawn De Pew Hartog is one of those people.
I met Dawn during my time working in communications in the emergency services space, where she was briefly my manager, and also a team leader within the State Control Centre (SCC). Dawn is also not only a volunteer at the Country Fire Authority (CFA), but also her local brigade’s Captain and on the CFA Board. For someone who is immersed in a very intense, often sober environment, Dawn is a bundle of positive energy. Even on the most intense bushfire days or harrowing incidents (we worked together in the Public Information Section at the SCC during the Bourke Street Massacre), she will always be that calming presence to help you get through it.
On top of this, Dawn’s day job is as the Senior Program Manager in Forest Fire Management Victoria’s (FFMVic) Culture and Diversity team, where she is working to bridge the gender gaps across the fire and emergency services space, as well as create greater cultural diversity.
I spoke to Dawn, from what I shall call her forest log cabin, about her journey to the fire frontline, looking after the mental health of yourself and your team in a crisis, and being a female leader in a traditionally male-dominated world.
Dawn De Pew Hartog is…
Dawn is a thinker, who wants to make a positive difference out in the world. Not only for the community and those around me in the emergency services field, but very much in creating a more diverse and a more accepting world, a less labelled world.
I probably spend more time overthinking things than I possibly need to, but I don’t want to miss something. I don’t want to leave things out and I don’t want to make a judgment without feeling like I’ve really understood what the issue is or the problem or the world or the environment.
What do you do and when did you decide this was what you wanted to do with your life?
Currently I work in the emergency services space, and I’m looking after a program of work which focuses on culture and diversity, specifically progressing culture and diversity across the FFMVic partnership. My focus has predominantly been looking at women in fire and emergency leadership roles.
We know that we’ve got a massive inequity of gender balance and diversity, so I’ve come into this space because it’s something that over the last couple years has been bubbling in the back as an area of passion. It definitely gets me out of bed in the morning to know that we can do something that will hopefully help either keep people safe or to empower people to work together and work in that team space.
My background is actually in teaching and it quickly became very clear to me that I didn’t want to go into the classroom and teach. I felt like my world was bigger than that. Through that I got into water safety, helping people learn safety skills and educating others to be able to teach swimming and lifeguarding, and that then led me into fire and the emergency services space where I am now.
It kind of just evolved, but it became really obvious that I liked that safety space – I liked being able to respond and being able to help. When I roll out the door in a firetruck, I love the fact that I’ve got three or four other people in that truck with me and that we’re working as a team. And even in the work that I do now, I love being able to have a team to lead or have a team to work with. It recharges my batteries and my focus.
Tell me about your work with the CFA and emergency services – how did this journey evolve for you and can you tell me about your experience within it?
I had been working at a university and again realised it wasn’t where I wanted to be. A friend of mine saw an opportunity to work in community engagement and community education at CFA, and that I should apply for it. So I thought, why not?
I had never worked in fire safety, even though I grew up in California, which is a high risk fire environment and moved to Victoria, which is another high fire environment. I interviewed and actually walked out feeling sick to my stomach cause I thought, oh my gosh, I’ve completely bombed that. But I got a call asking to come in for a second round, which turned out to be a job offer. They had apparently given me a bit of a hard time because emergency services is such a high pressure!
I knew really early on that this was my space. I really enjoyed the diversity of it, and particularly an organisation like CFA, there are so many opportunities and there’s so much focus on the membership, the staff, and the community as well, and how they all linked together.
I spent nearly 13 years there and I loved it. I then started working a bit more in the emergency space as a Public Information Officer in incident control centres and the State Control Centre. I love working with the team in that environment, knowing that we’ve got a goal and we have a duty and a commitment to other people.
You must thrive in that sort of high pressure, fast paced environment?
I do. It is stressful, but I think if you believe in what you’re doing, it doesn’t actually feel as stressful. It’s not for everyone, but you can see personalities who get into that space who were made for it. Everybody just kind of hunkers down because we know we all have a job to do, and it takes every single one of us to do the best we can because community is relying on us.
It’s funny because whilst I was at CFA, I didn’t really venture into the operational space at first, of becoming a volunteer firefighter, because I didn’t want CFA to be all of my life. And then I realised that I needed to be able to walk the talk. So I went and did my minimum skills, and I absolutely loved it, and then kicked myself that I didn’t get into it 10 years earlier! I haven’t looked back since, they are part of my family.
Can you tell me what goes into the training to be a volunteer firefighter?
It’s so much more than just hopping on a truck! You start out with the basics – fire behaviour, topography, weather patterns, techniques, and legislation. Then you’ll go through the tactics of how to fight fires, the roles, how you work with the crew, the tools of the trade, radios, emergency management, and the of chain of command.
That’s interesting because I think of it as being quite a physical job, but there’s actually quite an intellectual side to it, there’s so much you need to know.
That’s it exactly, it is. So there’s definitely the physical element, but you absolutely need the mental element, which happens the second that you respond to a page and you hop in the truck. You need to be already thinking, what is the incident that I’m turning out to? What am I likely to see? What am I likely to experience? And then you hop on the truck and you’re thinking about your team, who’s going to do what, how you’re going to work as a team, are there other brigades there.
And then there’s also the emotional side of it, what am I going to see? What am I going to be exposed to?
I’d think it would be quite confronting, wouldn’t it?
Absolutely. And for a lot of people, you think you know how you’re going to react to something, but you don’t necessarily know until you get put right in front of that situation.
Does your brigade also respond to car accidents and other emergency situations?
Yes it does. It’s really interesting, because when I first joined, I told the captain at the time that I was really keen to join, but I didn’t want to turn out to motor vehicle accidents. That was the thing that really frightened me. I just didn’t know that I wanted to see that and to have it in my memory. But then you join and you start turning out and you realise that we get a lot of calls for motor vehicle accidents, particularly where I live, and I felt guilty that my teammates and my brigade members were turning out and I wasn’t. No one else made me feel that way, it was my own feelings of guilt.
So I decided I needed to help them as well, it’s part of the job. But I’ve put rules in for myself, and luckily a lot of our brigade are the same, that just because you turn out to a scene, it doesn’t mean that everybody has to see everything. We all have a different job to do. So we limit our exposure to certain incidents for the wellbeing of everybody. Then we always follow it up with contacting the peer support service to just make sure everybody’s okay.
I was going to ask, how do you guys support each other? How do you look after yourself and your family, and everyone else once you’ve experienced, or been exposed to, some pretty horrific scenes, both fire and accident kind of scenes?
We are really lucky to be part of a brigade where that’s always been a very big focus; that our wellbeing is paramount. Otherwise, we’ll fall off and we won’t be there to help! You don’t want to overexpose people if you don’t need to, and there are members who won’t turn out to things and that’s perfectly fine because that’s their right. So we make sure we look after each other and are definitely engaged with the peer support programs that CFA has to offer.
We actually openly talk about what we’ve gone through and we debrief. So whoever is the Officer in Charge of the time will call the peers, and if the incident is really bad they’ll come to the station directly. If it’s something that isn’t too bad and everybody’s kind of just happy to go home, they’ll call that next day and just do a follow up. In my role now as Captain, I feel that responsibility as well, so I try to follow up and make sure people are okay.
You’re the captain of the brigade and also on the CFA board aren’t you?
Yes. So I’m into my third year as captain of the brigade and I’me in my first year on the CFA Board. I was also on the District Planning Committee for District 12, which is the CFA district that I’m in, but I’ve just stepped down from that.
I can imagine traditionally it’s quite a male dominated space. How have you navigated your place within that setting?
Yeah, it is an interesting one. The emergency sector is very male dominated. We’re on a tide of change, so issues like diversity, gender, and equality are being talked about and we’ve got programs. It’s definitely slow moving, but I’ve been lucky that I’m in a brigade where gender hasn’t been an issue and hasn’t limited or held me back.
I’ve really focused on my knowledge and skills to where I think I can add value to. In some cases I think I probably have had to try a bit harder because of the environment. And then I’ve also observed environments where people are more open about gender.
It’s hard, we’re trying to break down decades of a way of thinking. Some people have just gotten used to a certain way of walking and talking, and setting roles and responsibilities. And some will definitely claim that they’re advocates and pro-equality, but then they’ll do or say something that doesn’t necessarily align, but they don’t realise it. And I think they would be gutted if they did. Sometimes you can call it out, but you’ve just got to be a bit clever about how you try to point that out.
It’s an interesting space to be in, because as females, we don’t always help ourselves either. I think we do a lot, but then we also don’t want to be singled out. For example, as a firefighter, you want to know that you’re getting training and getting opportunities based on your skillset and your merit base, but it’s not always the case. And when things like gender targets come into play, it makes you feel like you’re only getting an opportunity because of that. But at the end of the day, you still have to have the qualities and the attributes and the knowledge to be there in the first place.
That flows quite logically into your role as Culture and Diversity Program Manager at FFMVic – tell me about that role and why is it something that appealed to you?
My role is managing a program of work that’s been in play for a couple of years, called the ‘Women in fire and emergency leadership roles’ program. A couple pieces of research were done, which highlighted the lack of gender diversity and the lack of females in not only in the operational space, but also in leadership roles. It brought up questions such as, what are the areas that we need to improve, what are the barriers that we currently have, and are there barriers that we can fix?
For example, the advertising materials for the role of Project Firefighters didn’t necessarily have females in them. So as a result, they didn’t think they could apply for that role because they didn’t think it would be something they would be suited for, whether they’re strong enough, whether they’re capable of it, or whether they have even thought about it or not. So something like that is an easy fix.
Which is funny when you’ve got an incredible female leader like Stephanie Rotarangi as the former Chief Fire Officer at FFMVic and now Deputy Chief Officer at CFA.
That’s right. So as a woman you start to go, okay cool, maybe I’d like to do this. We’ve now got the opportunity to go to secondary schools or to job fairs where people are starting to think – what do I want to be when I grow up? Also, if females are speaking to females in this space and they’re talking about how awesome it is to go out on strike teams and do the work that they do and the variety of work that they do, we hope that it will start to attract more people to the application process. A big part of this role so far has been looking at what can we do to change the wording of position descriptions and advertising, can we change the interview processes?
One of the other improvements as part of this program the past few years, was the firefighting clothing. So, when you say unisex, unisex has never been based off of female measurements, ever! When you’re wearing something that doesn’t feel right, it doesn’t make you feel okay – not that you have to feel like a beauty queen in it, but you at least have to feel comfortable!
We’re changeing that. There’s a company called Green Hip who do female work pants and utility pants, the previous team went out and brought them on board to make a line that women can choose from, that are made for women, who are all different shapes and sizes.
So there’s a whole program of work and there’s a really big list of actions attributed to the different parts of the business, including our partners Parks Victoria, Melbourne Water and VicForest as well. My goal is to turn this action plan and the overall governance of the current program into business as usual.
Does that work also look at bringing in more people of culturally diverse backgrounds and languages for different communities?
Yeah, definitely. Traditionally, it’s come from a women in fire, but now we are looking across the wider culture and diversity piece. To pull from the richer diversity of our communities and capabilities.
We know from research that diversity in people creates a much better team, in a much better space. You need to have other people to bounce ideas off, and even if your ideas and your thoughts and your views are completely different to each other, it doesn’t mean you have to dislike each other, because you learn from every single scenario.
This past bushfire season was particularly harrowing. What was your role within the season and how do you mentally prepare and cope with such devastation?
So I did the boots on the ground bit and I worked at the State Control Centre. And then also as a resident in a high fire risk community and captain of a brigade, you always have to be at the ready.
I think particularly for this last year and the length of the season, we’re seeing some interesting behaviours for fire and the elements that it needs. It is normal, but we’re seeing it in different times of the year. Because we work in an emergency management space, no matter who we are and what agency we work for, we’re in a space where we help each other and we work across agencies, as we have an emergencies and incidents year-round.
We have to stop pretending like this is something we’ve never seen before and we have to stop being shocked when a fire comes through our town, because it’s come through other people’s towns previously. Whether it’s us as an agency or whether it’s as a community. This isn’t our first rodeo, we get fires, we get floods, we get many wind events. We live in Australia and we have incredible weather, but also amazing and destructive weather.
Is there any particular community messaging that you’d like to share about people’s approach to the next fire season?
I think if everybody can start to think, or even listen to the messages from the agencies, and take that planning into their personal space. We talk about personal responsibility and resilience, and I think we’re getting there, but I think we still have a long way to go.
We have a responsibility to ourselves and our communities. We have to be always planning and you have to be thinking forward, which for some people would seem quite exhausting, because you actually don’t have the downtime that we may have had in previous generations. But maybe we haven’t, maybe we’re just rediscovering the same conversations they were having in the twenties, but this time to a more populated Australia.