Airlie Beach 4802
With many professions working towards gender equality, there are few where seeing a woman still turns heads.
It is something Mackay firefighter Lea Piccinelli is well aware of, as the only permanent female officer in the region.
“Being a firefighter was something I always dreamt of doing,” she said
“Emergency services was always in my sights.
“I liked the variety of jobs that firefighters do and I’m really hands on, so when I was 18 I joined my auxiliary crew in Airlie Beach and my passion grew from there,” she said.
Ms Piccinelli said graduating as a permanent officer was something she worked hard at for many years, serving four years as an auxiliary officer.
“It took me three times to be accepted and graduate,” she said.
“The testing is very intense and involved online exams, cognitive and aptitude testing and a physical exam.”
Serving the community is something that runs in Ms Piccinelli’s family.
Her twin sister, Shannon Gerrand, is a police officer in Queensland.
Ms Piccinelli said the well-known rivalry between firefighters and police was joked about in her family.
“It’s pretty strong, because I think I have a better job,” she laughed.
“We actually both play rugby league and rugby union for the QPS [Queensland Police Service] and QFES [Queensland Fire and Emergency Services] so we do meet each other on the field.
“It’s good fun to have a bit of family rivalry.”
No concessions for being female
Ms Piccinelli said the physical testing for those wanting to become fire officers was incredibly demanding.
“You do a beep test, a scenario-based course, two-and-a-half minute stair-climb walk, hose drag, equipment carry, ladder raise, use the sledge hammer and a dummy drag — and it’s all timed,” Ms Piccinelli said.
“The day I graduated was a really good day, it was quite an achievement.”
She said women were given no concessions for the time or tasks because of their gender, which is something she supported.
“Firefighters are different from police or the ambulance service, where they need males and females,” Ms Piccinelli said.
“We are all doing the same job, and should have the same standard and abilities.”
Zone Commander for the Mackay Whitsunday Region, John Pappas, said the old idea of only burly men being firefighters needed to change.
“It’s not just about physical fitness, we need someone who is of good mental health, is agile and is smart and understands it’s not just about, ‘go towards the fire’,” he said.
“There’s a lot more when it comes to the science of fire, rescues and hazmat incidents.”
Superintendent Pappas said the make-up of QFES should be a representation of the community it served.
“I think 50:50 between men and women is a long way off, but we are seeing progress.”
Superintendent Pappas, who also sits on the board of Women in Firefighting Australasia, said some of the best officers he had worked with over his 26-year career had been women.
“Women have a higher emotional intelligence, which means they are well suited to different roles,” he said.
“But we have this disease of tradition where people think ‘firemen’, and girls grow up and believe it’s a job they can’t do.”
He said while there had been progress in challenging perceptions and recruiting women, more needed to be done.
“The fact that we still have people who are surprised to see a female firefighter on a truck, that’s something that shouldn’t be occurring,” Superintendent Pappas said.
For fire officer, Ms Piccinelli, she would love to see more women on trucks, especially in regional areas.
“It’s not as uncommon to see female firefighters in the metropolitan areas or built-up areas, but still regionally, I think it can be quite uncommon,” she said.
“But it’s not a job that only men can do.
“We all bring our strengths to QFES, who promote diversity, so if you are interested go and see what it’s all about.
“You won’t regret it.”