“I just wanted to love my job”
Senior Firefighter Nicole Henness has been at Fire & Rescue NSW (FRNSW) for 12 years.
What made you decide you wanted to be a firefighter?
I knew a few firefighters and they all loved their job. I was a high school teacher and I wasn’t loving my job. It didn’t occur to me that firefighting was something I could do, but then I thought about it. I don’t like to sit down for too long, I don’t like to work at a desk, I like to be active and do things with my hands and have a bit of adventure. When that idea popped into head I realised all my friends who are firefighters love their job and I just wanted to love my job, so maybe I could do that.
Did you know much about the job?
I had a pretty good idea. Some people don’t think broadly enough but from knowing other firefighters I knew that it wasn’t just about firefighting. I knew there was a lot of PR stuff, education for pre-school kids and seniors. I do enjoy teaching I just didn’t enjoy the teaching I was doing.
Did you train for the Physical Assessment Test (PAT)? Do you continue to train?
I did a little bit of training. I had a base level from being quite active myself and doing PE teaching. I did some extra training to build up some strength and endurance. It is harder for women. Men generally have a natural strength even if they’re not training much. Whereas women have to train harder to keep up. I try to keep strong.
Are the public surprised to see a female firefighter?
In my early years, yes, and probably still up to about four or five years ago. When we do fire education, I’ve had female teachers say to the kids: “say goodbye to the fire – er – lady”. Occasionally people are surprised but not so much in the last few years. It’s not a negative thing, it’s just pure shock. They probably don’t usually take much notice of firefighters they pass at motor vehicle accidents and because we’ve got helmets on and our hair tied back they don’t know.
Do you think women can bring different things to the job?
It’s just a different way of thinking through problems. Solving problems from a different angle. I think when that’s put together as a team you might come to a more effective or efficient solution. It just helps to not have one set way of thinking. The more women that get into the job, the more the guys realise it’s not a gender thing, it’s a personality thing. Everyone’s got different experiences and different practical skills and mental evaluation skills. Because it is such a team job, when you put that together it works really well.
Do you think you had to work harder to prove yourself when you started out?
I don’t think I had to work harder but I did work harder because that’s the type of person I am. It comes down to your character traits and your personality. I was just keen to learn. We’re all in it; it’s not just one person. We’re all working together.
As a firefighter do you think it’s more important to be physically strong or mentally strong?
That’s a hard one. The job needs both. When you think of the worst case scenario it would probably by physical strength. But it’s a situational thing. You need that mental strength for a lot of other areas of the job. When you’re in a situation and you’re working hard and you’re sweating and it’s hot; physical strength is what you need. But then there are plenty of people who have physical strength who might not want to be doing the hard work.
Do you think FRNSW should try to attract more women to apply?
As long as they’re willing to go the hard yards and do what we do. I don’t care who I work with as long as they’re not lazy and they put in like the rest of us. If someone’s going to do that I don’t care what culture, religion, gender, size they are.
I’ve had guys say to me: “I’d never worked with a woman in the job. I’d heard it was going to be bad and then I met you. And you changed my whole view.” It comes down to personality and if you’ve got heart and you give it your best, no one come down on you for that.