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"Voices From the Past" - Special History Week Blog 2023

On Sunday 10th September 2023 the Museum hosted our annual History Week Keynote Presentation with this years theme being "Voices From the Past". With this topic we chose to highlight the history of women in the fire brigade in NSW. Our CEO Belinda McMartin gave our keynote address with our special guest speaker being Dr. Kristine Klugman OAM. To watch our Keynote Presentation in full visit www.museumoffire.net/history-week-2023


Women have always had a role to play in the fire protection of NSW. In many instances it was the women who “manned” the phone and sounded the alarm to alert the brigade to emergencies. The reason for this was that, especially in remote and regional NSW, the men would be away from home (or the fire station) attending their place of work so their wives and daughters were tasked with being on hand to take any emergency calls. These women would then sound the alarm which would notify the men that they were required to jump to action.


One story that we had previously come across when completing station research for Ballina Fire Brigade, was that the daughter of the local Mayor, Miss. Webster, would use her personal motor car to transport the firefighters and hose reel to incidents as the brigade didn’t receive a motorised appliance until the late 1920s. In the years after the appliance was received, she is noted as driving it to incidents when the qualified engine driver was not available.


The first time that women were formally introduced to the New South Wales Fire Brigade (NSWFB; today Fire and Rescue NSW, FRNSW) was during World War Two. Many will be familiar with Lady Liberty (predominantly in the USA) when she called women to action and into the workforce to aid the war effort. In Australia women also actioned this call.


A leading body in this undertaking was the Women’s Australian National Services (WANS) who oversaw the training of women in various fields such ambulance drivers and motor appliance mechanics. The Women’s Fire Auxiliary (WFA) was established as a division of WANS but under the auspice of the NSWFB in response to the mounting possibility of a Japanese invasion.


This movement was initially driven by Lady Wakehurst, the wife of the then Governor of NSW. Lady Wakehurst was elected president of the organisation and training was conducted by the officers of the NSWFB.

Board President T J Smith and Lady Wakehurst present certificates to Women's Fire Auxiliary, 4 February 1942 [Museum of Fire Collection].
Board President T J Smith and Lady Wakehurst present certificates to Women's Fire Auxiliary, 4 February 1942 [Museum of Fire Collection].

The program was restricted to Sydney at first and to women only aged between 30-45 years. Enlisted women undertook an eight-week training course which covered air raid procedures, how to deal with an incendiary bomb and what to do if there was a fire in the home. The course also covered rescue procedures, first aid and watchroom practices for fire stations. In effect these women were being trained much the same as Probationary Firefighters of the time, however the Probationary Firefighters did most of their training ‘on the job’ while the women were undertaking crash courses in a more formalised manner as a wartime measure to ensure they would be ready to assist the national crisis, should the need arise.

Upon completing their training, the women of the WFA were assigned to their local fire station where they attended one night of drills each week (for 90 minutes) and spent one night on watchroom duty.

Senior Fireman Tom Simpson with two WFA members doing watchroom duty at Cooks Hill Fire Station, 23 December 1941 [Museum of Fire Collection].
Senior Fireman Tom Simpson with two WFA members doing watchroom duty at Cooks Hill Fire Station, 23 December 1941 [Museum of Fire Collection].

The first women completed their training in 1941 and by the following year there were over 600 women enrolled in the WFA. As a demonstration of their capabilities and to showcase their training, a WFA demo and testing day was held at Rushcutters Bay on 19 July 1942. Almost all of the women in the WFA took part with around 3,000 spectators watching.


As a result of the programs’ popularity in Sydney it was extended across the rest of the state, especially targeting key strategic locations such as Lithgow, Wollongong and Wagga Wagga (these were the first three WFA to be established outside of Sydney).


The training for the WFA outside of Sydney was conducted over a less-intense, longer period of time with their instruction provided by the local Sub-Station Officers and Senior Firefighters. In most instances this was more akin to the “on-the-job” type of training received by fellow retained (aka partially paid or on-call male firefighters) than the class-room type of training established in Sydney.


Prior to 1942 all WFA members had to also be members of WANS, however after the armed forces opened up recruitment to women the number of women joining WANS and the WFA decreased, so the restriction on membership and on age was loosened. Despite this the initial rush of members slowed down and by 1945 it was estimated that there were around 800 trained members of the WFA across NSW. Thus while 600 members joined in the first year only a further 200 were trained in the later four years.


As the war drew to a close the WFA was one of the first wartime bodies to disband with women immediately returning to their original roles within society and the family home. Indeed, the role of the WFA and its importance to the NSWFB was relegated to history. Very few records of the WFA were maintained over the years and any history we have or knowledge we have of the organization have been pieced together like a puzzle from snippets of historical texts that those with an interest or keen eye picking up along the way as they investigate other areas of the NSWFB’s history.

Members of the Women’s Fire Auxiliary conduct hose drills, c. 1944 [Museum of Fire Collection].
Members of the Women’s Fire Auxiliary conduct hose drills, c. 1944 [Museum of Fire Collection].

One legacy of the WFA that has been largely forgotten, is the role the WFA played in paving the way for the current FRNSW training format. Prior to WWII firefighter training was mostly conducted “on the job” with some basic tasks undertaken at Headquarters before firefighters were assigned to their respective stations. The need to train the newly recruited WFA saw the first training by the NSWFB en-mass and the first in a classroom environment.


In 1945 NSWFB Chief Officer Beare recommended that the training of new recruits take place at the newly closed No. 9 Woollahra Fire Station. This was to be the first time that the training of male Firefighters would take place in a classroom environment. From 1946 it was referred to as a “school”. Today the use of the Emergency Services Academy at Orchard Hills is a legacy of the template laid out by the training of the WFA.


For the next forty years women played little role, other than administrative, in the operations of the NSWFB. That all changed in the early 1980s when Kristine Klugman became the first woman to be appointed to the NSWFB’s Board of Fire Commissioners (the governing body of the NSWFB) in 1982.


Aged, 41 and a mother of three teenage girls, Dr. Klugman (as she would become) volunteered to be the first female to formally undertake the physical test faced by new NSWFB recruits. She passed the test and in so doing proved to her fellow Board members that the opportunity to become a firefighter should be open to both genders.

Kristine Klugman undergoing work-related tasks, climbing through and over a fence, to test ability in the FRAB (Felix Russo Assessment Battery) test [Museum of Fire Collection].
Kristine Klugman undergoing work-related tasks, climbing through and over a fence, to test ability in the FRAB (Felix Russo Assessment Battery) test [Museum of Fire Collection].

In 1985, also the centenary of the NSWFB, the opportunity to become a firefighter was opened to women with the first permanent firefighters entering the training college the following years. In 1987 the first retained female firefighters then joined the ranks. To learn more about Dr. Kristine Klugman, watch her speech in our History Week Keynote Presentation or visit www.museumoffire.net/single-post/how-did-the-fire-museum-end-up-in-a-powerhouse-in-penrith

Female Firefighters with Board member Kristine Klugman, 24 November 1986 [Museum of Fire Collection].
Female Firefighters with Board member Kristine Klugman, 24 November 1986 [Museum of Fire Collection].

To celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the inclusion of women in the NSWFB ranks, in 2025 the Museum will be hosting an exhibition and the Museum is partnering with a special group within FRNSW to tell the forgotten stories of the women who paved the way for today’s female firefighters. This project will culminate in the publication of a book and the Museum is proud to be able to help give these women of history a voice.


Thank you for joining us for our annual History Week Keynote Presentation, to watch it in full visit www.museumoffire.net/history-week-2023


- Story by Belinda McMartin, CEO

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