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A shoulder to lean on - looking at the history of the chaplains in the Fire Brigade

What is a chaplain?

Fire and Rescue NSW employs two Chaplains to support and counsel firefighters, other staff, retired personnel and their families, who are facing a personal or family crisis or are having problems dealing with a difficult incident.

What do they do?

Chaplains provide counselling and referral services to firefighters throughout NSW, and, in some cases, to members of the public who are affected by major incidents. During and after serious incidents, the Chaplains also ensure firefighters have access to the support they need. Overall, Chaplains provide necessary physical and spiritual support to those who need it.

History of FRNSW Chaplains

Senior Chaplain Major Don Woodland 1981-1990

Senior Chaplain Don Woodland at Alexandria Training College [Museum of Fire Collection]
Senior Chaplain Don Woodland at Alexandria Training College [Museum of Fire Collection]

Senior Chaplain Major Don Woodland’s was the first Chaplain in NSW Fire Brigade (now known as FRNSW) history. He was appointed Padre to the Australian Army between 1965 and 1970 and was posted to Vietnam during 1969-1970. He joined the NSWFB as a part-time Chaplain in 1981 and was given a full-time position in 1985.

His role was to attend serious incidents, especially those involving the death of individuals and provide support and assistance to next of kin, hospitalised members, and their families. His duties were both in welfare and pastoral matters. He also conducted weddings, funerals, christenings, and church services for Brigade members.

Five Associate Chaplains were appointed to aid him in his duties. Their role was to be available to members of the NSWFB and their families for counselling, pastoral, and welfare matters, and in times of serious injury and hospitalisation and to accompany the Senior Chaplain to visit next of kin in the case of fatality or serious injury.

Major Don Woodland retired in 1990 and joined the Salvation Army in an important administrative position.

Senior Chaplain Major Bob Garven and Chaplain Genness Garven – 1990-2004

Senior Chaplain Major Bob Garven was a NSWFB Firefighter in the late 1960s and 70s and was the ACT Fire Brigade Chaplain between 1980 and 1986, becoming the NSWFB’s Senior Chaplain in 1990. Genness Garven became the NSWFB’s Family Support Officer in 1992, and her role was to help bereaved families deal with grief; providing advice, comfort, and support. They both officiated at many funerals of NSWFB members and their families and provided support to firefighters and fire victims. They also officiated at many NSWFB weddings and blessed recruit classes.

During their time there were eight Associate Chaplains who could be called on at any time when needed. An Associate Chaplain could be called out by brigade members or sent on by the Senior Chaplain to any situation where the services of a Chaplain were required.

Senior Chaplain Major Bob Garven helped establish a Critical Peer Debriefing Team via the Critical incident Debriefing (CID) Program to address the problems that critical incident stress has caused in the workplace due to the effect it can have on brigade members. The purpose of the team was to minimise the long-term negative effects of critical incident stress via early intervention strategies.

The Critical Peer Debriefing Team was often the first line of contact for those seeking assistance and they were involved in assessing the type of assistance required, organising and assisting with group debriefings, providing on-scene support, and one-to-one assistance, liaising with and referring people on as necessary. Thereafter, Brigade Psychologist Julie Berg would provide a more in-depth follow-up service as required.

Chaplain Bob and Genness Garven [Museum of Fire Collection]
Chaplain Bob and Genness Garven [Museum of Fire Collection]

The CID Program’s key goals were to acknowledge that firefighters experience normal feelings and reactions to abnormal and traumatic events in the course of their duty, provide a positive way to cope with the effects of dealing with these traumatic events, reduce the likelihood of delayed stress reaction, enhance work performance, reduce the impact of work related stress on the families of members, and promote the health, welfare, and safety of all members of the NSW Fire Brigades.

Senior Chaplain Major Bob and Chaplain Genness Garven retired on the 8th of January 2004 from FRNSW and continued on to other duties with the Salvation Army. In June 2004, former Chaplain Genness Garven received an Order of Australia Medal for her work as FRNSW Chaplain and Department of Corrective Services Gaol Chaplain.

Senior Chaplain Lyndsay and Senior Chaplain Dawn Smith – 2004-2023

Senior Chaplain Lyndsay Smith started as an Associate Chaplain with FRNSW in 1987 and received a Bachelor of Ministry in 2003. Senior Chaplain Dawn Smith held a Diploma of Teaching, Graduate Diploma in Christian Counselling, and a Graduate Diploma in Emotionally Focused Therapy.

Lyndsay’s role was to conduct weddings and funerals, perform blessings at graduations, station openings and firefighter championships, and support and counsel firefighters in personal matters and following incidents. Dawn’s role as a professional counsellor and therapist was to focus on short and long-term counselling of firefighters and their families. They were also available on request to support members of the community who have been affected by a major incident by helping them obtain emergency clothing and housing and link them to other agencies for further assistance.

Senior Chaplain's Dawn and Lyndsay Smith [Museum of Fire Collection]
Senior Chaplain's Dawn and Lyndsay Smith [Museum of Fire Collection]

Senior Chaplain Lyndsay and Chaplain Dawn have seen a change in mental health and wellbeing support offered by FRNSW over the two decades of their careers as FRNSW Chaplains. When they started, the Wellbeing team consisted of one coordinator and 12 peers, plus the Chaplains. In 2013, the official FRNSW Mental Health Policy was launched which outlined the organisation’s framework for raising awareness for mental health issues, implementing preventative initiatives, and providing an effective response to situations that may give rise to mental illness. Now, FRNSW has a wellbeing team of psychologists, wellbeing officers, 150 peers, and the Chaplains. In a 2023 interview, Lyndsay states, “There is also a much greater willingness to admit to struggles and ask for help.”

Lyndsay and Dawn both retired on the 30th June 2023.

Interim Chaplain Jason Goodhart – 2023

Interim Chaplain Jason Goodhart
Interim Chaplain Jason Goodhart

*Update: Jason was appointed as Senior Chaplain officially in July 2024, after serving diligently in the interim for 12 months.

Interim Chaplain Jason Goodhart has been an on-call firefighter since 2003 and an Associate Chaplain for the last 3 years. He has stepped into the position of Senior Chaplain for the next six months, while a permanent position is finalised. His role will be to provide counsel, support, and referral services to all members of FRNSW and their families.

Jason received a Long Service medal in 2014. He became Deputy Captain of Glenbrook Fire Brigade in 2015 and later became Captain of Glenbrook Fire Brigade in June 2019. He also received a National Medal in 2019.

-Story by the Museum of Fire Heritage Team


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