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30 Years of the Community Fire Unit (CFU)

The Formation of the Community Fire Unit

Following the devastating January 1994 bushfires residents were left feeling frustrated as they wanted to help protect their community but didn’t know how to. They watched, helpless, as their homes were destroyed by fire often only being armed with a garden hose ad buckets of water. This was the catalyst for Terry Munsey of the NSW Fire Brigades (NSWFB, now Fire and Rescue NSW; FRNSW) to upgrade former hose posts to Community Fire Units (CFUs) under the Bushfire/Rescue section of NSWFB so people could adequately protect their own homes as well as their neighbours. The concept of CFUs had been around since the end of World War II when hose posts were installed for first aid protection in bushfire prone areas, and it was many of these former hose posts that were upgraded to CFUs. By the middle of 1994 twelve mobile CFUs had been purchased with two already installed at Picnic Point and Lugarno, and training underway for the community.

What is the Community Fire Unit?

A CFU is a group of volunteers made up of local residents living in urban areas close to bushland. This unit is supported by FRNSW who teaches them how to prepare themselves, their families, and their home ahead of the bushfire season. Each CFU is equipped with basic firefighting equipment and training to assist with protecting their community. As former CFU Coordinator and Station Officer Terry Munsey put it “these units are to bushfires, what a first aid box is to an accident … they are to be used by the Community Fire Unit members until the arrival of the Brigade - in a similar way to someone with a first aid certificate administering basic first aid at an accident scene prior to the arrival of an ambulance” (Fire News, Summer 1998). In preparation for the approach of fire, CFU volunteers will prepare hoses and standpipes, set up pumps in residential swimming pools, and wet down properties and the surrounding bush land. They also play a key role even after the fire has passed, staying vigilant and putting out small spot fires for several days. The CFU can then work closely with locals after devastating bushfires to aid the grieving and rebuilding process within their own community.

Community Fire Units training with Terry Munsey, c. 2000s [Museum of Fire Collection]

Each unit is linked to a local fire station who play an important role in the initial and ongoing training and cements the bridge between FRNSW and local communities. It has also given the community greater awareness around bushfire safety with the CFU passing on knowledge about fire prevention to the community. The CFU also further assists in bushfire hazard reduction practices which expose the volunteers to real-life fire conditions, preparing them for the bushfire season. This way when a bushfire does occur, the CFU can begin protecting the community until the fire brigade arrives.

Aboriginal Community Fire Units

On 20 December 2002 the first Community Fire Unit in a NSW Aboriginal community was officially commissioned by the NSWFB at Bellwood Road in Nambucca Heads. This came after Nambucca Heads retained firefighters Luke Bateman, Mal Edwards and Terry Marshall expressed their concern about the possible bushfire threat to the Aboriginal community along Bellwood Road. The firefighters took the concept to the local Land Council who were very enthusiastic about the program. Other Aboriginal communities would follow, including Fingal Heads receiving their own CFU during NAIDOC week in 2003 and Brewarrina in 2004. These CFUs enabled local Aboriginal residents to pass on important safety advice to their community about bushfires, home fire safety, and other important safety messages.

Official commissioning Nambucca Aboriginal CFU, 20 December 2002 [Museum of Fire Collection]

In 2004 CFU Co-ordinator Terry Munsey and Aboriginal Services Officer Terry Hill commissioned artist Danielle Mate to paint a CFU trailer which was used to promote both the CFU Program and Aboriginal cultural awareness. The trailer was first showcased at the NSWFB Firefighters 2004 State Championship in Port Macquarie and was a big hit!

CFU trailer painted by Danielle Mate, 2004 [Museum of Fire Collection]

The Community Fire Unit Today

Following the October 2013 bushfires, FRNSW reviewed the activation and operations of the CFU. Twenty years after first forming as the CFU, a new section was then created within FRNSW in January 2014 to support the work of CFU volunteers and the firefighters who assist them. The success of the CFU meant they outgrew the capacity of the Bushfire Section, and to give them increased training and communication a new independent team was established. In 2015 more improvements were made to the CFU with the rollout of a disaster recovery vehicle that had access to free wi-fi, phone chargers, TV, laptops, printer and access to valuable information for residents in bushfire disaster zones. Today, there are over 4,600 volunteers working across 500+ Community Fire Units throughout NSW.

-Story by the Museum of Fire Heritage Team


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