YOU could say that firefighting is in Kerry Richards’ blood. A 39-year-old Wilberforce resident, Kerry [whose maiden name is Armstrong] recently joined the Windsor Fire Brigade, following in the footsteps of her grandfather and great-grandfather – who between them served 106 years in this brigade.
Kerry had always wanted to follow in their footsteps, but running a house and bringing-up two children stopped this from happening for many years. But now her kids have grown up, she has finally taken-up her rightful post at the station as a third-generation Armstrong ‘firie’.
“I was always interested in joining because of the family background. I had thought about it since I was a teenager,” Kerry told the Gazette.
“So I put my application in last year and completed phases one and two of my training and I’m now a fully-fledged retained firefighter.”
Retained firefighters like Kerry are employed by Fire and Rescue NSW (FRNSW) and are ‘on call’ from home or work to respond to fires and other emergencies. They are paid a fortnightly ‘retainer’ for being on call and receive an hourly rate for attending incidents, training sessions and other activities.
Kerry’s first call-out job was for a house fire at Riverstone, and she’s also attended a bushfire at Castlereagh Road and other emergencies. She is one of 16 retained firefighters and the third female to join the station on Anderson Street in South Windsor, reporting to captain Kim Roche.
In 1902, Kerry’s great-grandfather, Leo Armstrong, joined what was then called the Windsor Council Brigade. He became captain in 1922, and retired aged 81. His son, Allan Armstrong – Kerry’s grandfather – joined his father at the brigade in 1939, before taking over his role as captain in 1965, where he remained for the next 17 years.
Kerry has a box of old firefighting paraphernalia given to her by her aunt a few years back. It consists of medals, newspaper clippings, and other odds and bobs collected over the years by the Armstrongs. In one clipping, Kerry is pictured as a five-year-old at her grandfather’s retirement from the brigade.
She also has an array of old firefighting helmets used by her grandfather and great-grandfather – these were originally made of brass, then moved to white plastic, and Kerry wears one made out of fibreglass.
She also has an old phone system from the war years that was used in her grandparents’ old house in McGraths Hill for call-outs – these provided a direct telephone line between the station, local exchange and the captain’s residence.
But perhaps her most valued piece is an old red push bike with the letters NSWFB printed on the frame.
“The bike was issued to my great-grandfather Leo in 1914 and he rode it to work. It was restored in 1965 and given back to him as a retirement gift,” Kerry said.
“Then I had it restored again a few years ago at a place in Riverstone. It’s got new tyres, paintwork, the rust taken out of it, and new handlebars and a new seat.”
As fate would have it, Kerry’s husband David is also a firefighter, and is captain of Riverstone Fire Brigade. The bike and the rest of the Armstrong family’s firefighting gear now take pride of place in the couple’s ‘games room’ at home.
“It’s wonderful to have so much history and also a husband as a captain is great! It would certainly be great to be a captain myself in the future,” Kerry said.
“My son Jason might join as well in the future when he’s not working six days a week – I definitely hope he’ll join! It would be great to have a fourth-generation Armstrong on the brigade.”
Both Kerry’s grandfather and great-grandfather were farmers, and Kerry grew up hearing stories about their experiences in the brigade. When the phone system in the old house used to ring for a call out, Kerry’s grandmother Kathleen Armstrong would hang a white sheet out in the yard so the men would know to come up from their work down on the crops and attend the emergency.
“My great-grandfather attended a fire in Pitt Town once and on the way they hit a cow which overturned the old pump, and one of the crew got trapped under the side step, in the water on the side of the road, and the crew had to actually hold his head up out of the water so he wouldn’t drown,” Kerry said.
“Early in the seventies Allan, my grandfather, attended a fire near Rickabys Creek where a milk truck holding raw rum had turned over. It was so strong it killed all the grass around the road and melted the bitumen! He said the fumes were terrible.”
Join the force
The roles of a firefighter are varied. They respond to urban fire and rescue calls, as well as hazardous materials incidents and possible terrorism activities.
The crew at Windsor get around 25 emergency call-outs a month (around 2-3 a day), and each crew member must be available for a minimum 24 hours a week. Captain Roche said daytime availability was important.
FRNSW is trying to get more women on the force. “It would be great to see more females join,” said Kerry.
Windsor Fire Brigade is currently recruiting, and has four positions available for retained firefighters like Kerry. The cut-off date for applications is Friday, October 20.
For more information phone Fire and Rescue NSW Zone Office on 4782 2568 or visit www.fire.nsw.gov.au.