By Kath Gannaway
‘Tenacity’ is a key message visiting American helicopter pilot Jennifer Bartley has for young women aspiring to reach their goals.
Jennifer, 30, is one of Melbourne Water’s crew of seven fulltime and eight casual female firefighters who are part of the team based at the Melbourne Water Healesville depot and who have the awesome responsibility for protecting Melbourne’s water supply catchments from bushfire.
An experienced water-bombing pilot from Ruidoso, New Mexico, Jennifer arrived in the Yarra Valley in December armed with a strong record of fighting major wildfires from the skies in the US and looking forward to the challenge of aerial firefighting in another country.
Starting out as a firefighter, she worked her way skywards and has been one of a growing number of female pilots specialising in wildfire control in the US.
She says she was lucky to get into the industry when she was relatively young, and to have been given the opportunity at around 22 years of age to get into aerial firefighting.
Although it’s a competitive environment with a large number of pilots aspiring to land the same jobs, she said the biggest challenge for women is financial.
“A lot of it is specialised and you have to have a certain amount of time on the books to get into fires.
“It’s pretty tough to be able to afford all the training,” she said.
Melbourne Water Executive General Manager, Service Delivery, Charmaine Quick, said the addition of the outstanding American pilot was providing benefits for the rest of the team and a wonderful demonstration of the diverse roles available for women at Melbourne Water.
“It’s extremely encouraging that we are seeing an increase in the number of female applicants for both fulltime and seasonal firefighting roles,” Ms Quick said.
Monique Williams, Teagan Morris, Lydia Wilson and Evelyn Wilson, all from Healesville, are among the women wearing the distinctive green uniform of Melbourne Water’s firefighting crews who are involved in fire preparation and suppression work in the catchments.
A love of the outdoors was the common thread when the Mail asked the women what attracted them to a job which is traditionally male dominated.
“I’ve always been an outdoors sort of person and a uni degree in outdoor education sent me this way too,” Monique said.
“It’s practical work too that requires a different kind of mindset when you’re doing something like planned burns, but you’re well prepared with the training.”
Teagan said she enjoys the technical side of the work.
“It is about being outdoors, but when you get to a fire you have to think about what you’re doing,” she said.
“Obviously, it’s not going to be for everyone, but if it’s something you really want to try, I would definitely encourage them to give it a go,” Monique added.
That encouragement is part of Melbourne Water’s thinking also with Ms Quick saying they actively seek diverse candidates across the board.
Recruitment campaigns using more social media channels such as facebook is helping attract more female applicants, but she said there is some way to go.
“Our female firefighters currently make up around 30 per cent of our total firefighting team and it would be great to see this closer to parity,” Ms Quick said.
On the ground, or in the air, Ms Quick said Melbourne Water’s firefighters perform a vitally important job in safeguarding Melbourne’s water supplies.
“Our firefighters take great pride in their work,” she said.
It’s a pride that for the next three-months Jennifer Bartley will share, and no doubt inspire those around her to go for their goals.
“Keep on going,” she said.
“It’s not always easy but perseverance, tenacity, that’s what you want.”