This week Vivid Minds Vivid Futures interviews Inspector Liz Ferris, District Coordinator, NSW Rural Fire Service, New England Zone. Liz is the 2IC for the New England Zone, which covers Armidale, Uralla and Walcha council areas.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I was born in Grafton and moved to Armidale when I was about four years old – I’m pretty well a local now! I’m married to Neville and we run a cattle grazing property north of Armidale. We have two adult children, Melissa and Brendan, and our first grandchild was born last year. I worked for UNE for 34 years before taking on this position with the Rural Fire Service in 2017. I was awarded the Australian Fire Service Medal in 2013 for services as a volunteer to RFS for training – state–wide and internationally as part of the Botswana Fire Program – mentoring of female volunteers and community engagement.
What does your current role entail?
It’s a very broad role; liaison with the community and the volunteers is a big part, as is liaising with other agencies such as Fire and Rescue, National Parks or the councils and attending various meetings like the local emergency management meetings. I work with my team on planning for the bushfire season, getting as much hazard reduction as possible done and refining processes for the coming season. Another focus is fire operations, and working as a deputy incident controller or operations in an incident management team should we have an S44 fire (a major fire across more than one agency).
Why did you join the RFS?
I joined the RFS as a volunteer in December 1990 after a fire on our local property in which we nearly lost our house. I initially took on a non-operational role as secretary, then quickly moved into operations roles as deputy captain, captain – I was the first female brigade captain in the Zone – in 2008. In 2010 I moved into a Group Captain role, the highest volunteer rank. I couldn’t have done it without family support – that was really important to me – as well as support from the office here and a lot of male mentors – in those days there weren’t many females, let alone anyone in a leadership role. I moved into my current position on a temporary basis in 2016 whilst on secondment from UNE and in 2017 I was permanently appointed to this position.
What have been some of the challenges as both a volunteer and a senior member of staff?
The main challenge was being a female in a very male-orientated organisation. When I joined there were very few female members let alone female leaders. In those days, we still only had men’s overalls as the main component of the PPE gear, so I’ve seen a lot of changes over the years!. I’ve been very fortunate to have had some excellent mentors in my life – obviously, mostly male – locally from the area manager to state–wide. I’m now paying forward by mentoring other females into the leadership.
Another major challenge is large fires which are physically and mentally tiring. Seeing the devastation on the local community can impact on you quite personally. My community engagement training has really helped me – how we can learn from what we have experienced and what we can do ‘next time’. The most challenging part of that is that you don’t know what the fire season is going to be like until it happens. Adaptability is important – this can be quite challenging at times because there are so many conflicting priorities.
Communicating with a diverse range of volunteers can be difficult, particularly when you add in the diversity within the broader community. Getting the right message across so everyone knows what to expect requires a wide range of communication skills.
Overall, it’s a challenging role, but very rewarding.
What do you like most about being involved with the RFS?
I like the variety in my role. On any day, I can meet with volunteers, represent the RFS across the state, or plan a hazard reduction – get out there and get my hands dirty. There’s no time to get bored.
I find medal presentations where volunteers get recognised for their service very rewarding. We’re very lucky because we have such a broad range of volunteers in our area and some have more than 50 years’ service. That’s a lot to give to your community. It is so rewarding to be able to interact with the community and our volunteers and just learn from them. .
I love the opportunity to mentor. I did it as a volunteer and now as a staff member. Seeing people move up through the ranks – seeing them grow – is very rewarding.
What advice would you give somebody thinking of joining the RFS?
The RFS is a very diverse organisation. If you’re community–minded and want to get involved, there’s definitely a job for you– come along and have a chat to us. The added benefit is that your RFS training can be applied in your day-to-day job and you can apply your experience to your RFS volunteer role. Our volunteers have an enormous range of skills, and we probably need your particular skill. It’s not just firefighting.
What inspires you?
My family inspire me – and funnily enough, it was my kids who told me to listen to my own advice when I was considering leaving UNE to take on this role! My advice to them is always to take every opportunity presented – be brave enough to step off the cliff.
Building relationships with our volunteers is really inspiring. They’re more than firefighters.
My biggest inspiration is our former Commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons. He was a great mentor to me personally. Watching him in the past fire season, even more so. That compassion and leadership – he’s a very good person.
I’m studying to become an incident controller of a Section 44, which will enable me to take on that role across the state and nationally. My team and I are preparing for the upcoming fire season. It really is important to prepare now, not when the fire is coming over the hill.
And amongst all that, I’ll be taking time to look after myself!