Then and now: Spotlight shone on Fingal Bay Rural Fire Brigade's female firefighters

LADIES TO THE FRONT: Current and former Fingal Bay Rural Fire Brigade members, from left, Cas Schmitzer, Kerrin Millington, Sandy Nunn, Vera Sosso, Kaitlyn Taylor. Picture: Ellie-Marie Watts
LADIES TO THE FRONT: Current and former Fingal Bay Rural Fire Brigade members, from left, Cas Schmitzer, Kerrin Millington, Sandy Nunn, Vera Sosso, Kaitlyn Taylor. Picture: Ellie-Marie Watts

Flicking through a red album of old photos, Sandy Nunn and Vera Sosso reminisce about their time in the Fingal Bay Rural Fire Brigade.

"There's some good photos here," Vera says as she pauses to look at a selection of photos from the early 2000s of Fingal firefighters demonstrating fire safety at Shoal Bay Public School.

The pair thumb through the album containing photos from the brigade's early days - social shots, fires, the old station - until Sandy stops and laughs when she sees a small red truck seemingly bogged in white sand.

"I remember when Vera and I got bogged in the middle of the scrub one night," she recalls. "We had no idea where we were. Everything was pitch black. We were taking food and drinks out to the guys to feed and water the guys, like we always did."

The brigade welcomed Sandy, Vera and Kerrin Millington to the station recently to talk about their experiences as some of the first female firefighters in Fingal Bay.

As part of its International Women's Day celebrations (to be marked on March 8), the brigade is shining a light on its female firefighters past and present.

Current and former Fingal Bay Rural Fire Brigade members, from left, Cas Schmitzer, Kerrin Millington, Sandy Nunn, Vera Sosso, Kaitlyn Taylor. Picture: Ellie-Marie Watts

Current and former Fingal Bay Rural Fire Brigade members, from left, Cas Schmitzer, Kerrin Millington, Sandy Nunn, Vera Sosso, Kaitlyn Taylor. Picture: Ellie-Marie Watts

"These ladies set the standard high," Cas Schmitzer, one of Fingal Bay's three current female members, said. "I thank them for paving the way for us because without them we would not have the easier time that we have now to get in and do what we need to do, and gender not be an issue."

It was not long after the Fingal Bay Bush Fire Brigade (as it was known before the Rural Fire Service formed in 1997) was established in what is believed to have been the mid-50s that women joined its ranks.

The women did it all - fought fires, cooked food and delivered drinking water to men on the fire ground and fundraised for the brigade.

"The only thing we didn't do was reverse the truck back into the shed," Vera said.

According to Sandy and Vera, the brigade was established by Dave Nunn, his brother-in-law Dick King and other brother-in-law Al Walbridge. The men were quickly joined by their wives, who were sisters: Minnie, married to Dave, Dorothy, married to Dick, and Cookie, married to Al.

FAMILY: Betty Stewart, Beverly Conway, Vera Sosso, Jenny Cordoran and Hazel 'Nan' Coggan. Picture: Supplied

FAMILY: Betty Stewart, Beverly Conway, Vera Sosso, Jenny Cordoran and Hazel 'Nan' Coggan. Picture: Supplied

Then came Jean Bamber, Vera Sosso and her family, sisters Betty, Pam, Jenny and mother Hazel Coggan who everyone called Nan.

"Nan was the cook of cooks," Sandy recalls. "She could feed 50, 60, 70 people at the drop of a hat. She could get called up in the middle of the night and feed every brigade that was out fighting a fire. You could have anywhere up to six brigades out and she'd feed everyone at the drop of the hat."

Vera's husband Graham joined the brigade in '68, the year after they moved to Fingal Bay.

"I joined in the early 70s. It was me, Jean, Minnie and Sandy."

Vera was the only woman who could drive the brigade's trucks as she had her driver's licence. Not a truck licence, but a standard car licence. It was enough to permit her behind the wheel.

Today, firefighters must complete a course to drive a truck - one of many difference between firefighting then and today.

Sandy married into the Fingal Bay fire brigade. She married Al Nunn who was a long-time captain of the brigade and is the current senior firefighter at the station.

"When I came up to Fingal Bay the first time the whole family were out fighting a fire. It seemed like the thing the family did," she said.

"In '78 I moved up and then we fell pregnant. I was still fighting fires then, and helping deliver food to the guys out on the fire ground.

"I remember that I got my firefighting certificate in the July and my son was born in October. It was quite funny because the bloke handing out the certificate said he'd given them to all types of people but never one and a half."

Sandy says her son, Bradley, was born with firefighting in his veins.

"He was doing it before he was born."

Bradley is deputy captain of the Fingal Bay Rural Fire Brigade while her younger son, Dean, is the captain. Bradley's son is a junior member of the brigade.

"For the families who lived here at the time, remember it was a small fishing village back then, not nearly as big as it is today, it was one in all in," Sandy said. "For some families like mine, it's still like that.

"If you lived here, that's what you did, you joined up. All Vera's family were involved, her three children were all juniors. Pam's three kids were in the brigade. Betty had eight children and seven were in the brigade."

One of Pam's children is Kerrin. She was member of the brigade "on and off" for 10 years. She was a junior member in the 80s and remembers times when the fire truck picked her and other junior members aged 13 to 14 up from Nelson Bay High School to attend a fire.

"My greatest memory is this one time we got the call one afternoon and they came and picked us up from school. There was a fire near Squire Street, which used to be all bushland," she said.

"I remember the first thing that I said was 'oh my god, we're going to get in so much trouble because our cubby house is full of stuff from the house. It's all going to be burnt and we're going to get in so much trouble'. We lost a couple of cubby houses that day."

CELEBRATE: Cas Schmitzer, Kerrin Millington, Sandy Nunn, Vera Sosso, Kaitlyn Taylor. Picture: Ellie-Marie Watts

CELEBRATE: Cas Schmitzer, Kerrin Millington, Sandy Nunn, Vera Sosso, Kaitlyn Taylor. Picture: Ellie-Marie Watts

Sandy said in those times when there was a mid-week fire it would often be up to the junior members and women to respond to emergencies because the men would be in Newcastle or even Sydney working.

"I used to go out with Aunty Vera and Sandy and help dish up the food and walk around with these [water jerry cans] putting out spot fires," Kerrin said.

Sandy added: "I remember carrying those big plastic jerry cans filled with water. You'd walk along pumping water onto fires. I couldn't pick one up now, they're that heavy. Not like what they have today."

Aside from the changes in technology - from using an air raid siren to raise the alarm to having a mobile app that alert firefighters to emergencies - and equipment - helmets are now lighter and the jerry cans are now bladder bags - one of the greatest changes to modern firefighting is the inclusion of water and food on the trucks.

"We have a little container on the truck where we can store bits and pieces to sustain us in between the meals from fire control," Cas said.

"When these ladies were on the trucks, there was no water or food. If they did not do what they did then those men would not have been able to sustain themselves on that fire ground for long at all.

"These ladies would not only fight fires but also provide meals to all agencies on the fire ground at the time. Without the ladies not only supplying but also delivering the food and water for the crews the men would have not been able to sustain themselves while fighting fires.

"I can't fathom how they did it.

"The fact that they were the first female members here would have been difficult at times. Even though everyone knew everyone, the fact that they were female would have had some barriers that we don't have now because of them."

STILL GOT IT: Vera Sosso behind the wheel of Fingal Bay Rural Fire Brigades truck. Looking on is Sandy Nunn. Vera was one of the brigade's only female truck drivers back when she joined in the 70s. Picture: Ellie-Marie Watts

STILL GOT IT: Vera Sosso behind the wheel of Fingal Bay Rural Fire Brigades truck. Looking on is Sandy Nunn. Vera was one of the brigade's only female truck drivers back when she joined in the 70s. Picture: Ellie-Marie Watts

Cas, Kaitlyn Taylor and Beth Dwyer are Fingal Bay Rural Fire Brigade's three current female firefighters. Kaitlyn has been a firefighter with Fingal Bay for 11 years. Cas has been with the brigade one year and Beth is a dual member with Cessnock.

Sandy paid tribute to them.

"The girls do a brilliant job," she said. "I think back when we were in it we were a bit more protected. Back then you were still a woman and there was a line you couldn't cross. I think these girls today have it a little easier, are more respected. Women today in the brigade, in any force, are loud and proud."

TIME CHANGE: Fingal Bay firefighter Cas Schmitzer and Kerrin Millington showing the difference in RFS uniform and equipment from the 70s and 80s to now.Picture: Ellie-Marie Watts

TIME CHANGE: Fingal Bay firefighter Cas Schmitzer and Kerrin Millington showing the difference in RFS uniform and equipment from the 70s and 80s to now.Picture: Ellie-Marie Watts