Zen and the Art of... Fire Fighting
Updated: Feb 12
Originally from Rotorua, New Zealand’s bubbling muddy wonderland of geysers and sulphuric stench, Narrabeen firefighter Bronnie Mackintosh is now lighting things up with her Girls on Fire program.
Having been a firefighter since the early 2000’s, a point in time when the catastrophic events of 9/11 put the world on notice that firefighters epitomise courage, resilience and community service, it’s safe to say Bronnie loves her job. “You get to be with people on their worst days, working to bring out their best selves to get them safely out of a horrendous situation, whatever it may be. To be the calm in the chaos, this job is a privilege.”
It’s little wonder she found this career path, having honed a dedication to teamwork, physicality and adventure from the outset. In the early 90’s, eyes focused on a professional rugby career, she set sail for, of all places, the U.S.A., to join the burgeoning College women’s rugby scene, playing for Florida State University in the curtain raisers before their sold out gridiron games. “The crowds had no idea what was going on, but they loved it. You’d always hear them saying, how cool’s this, all these chicks are smashing each other!” But with all the cash being splashed on blokes with helmets, pads and figure-hugging dungarees while the rugby girls had to walk the crowds post-game, hat in hand, ice packs on their bruises, doing their own fundraising, four years of college fun and games was enough. Luckily she decided to call Australia home, returning Down Under to stay with her brother in Dee Why.
Her rugby love affair continued with the Rats as a player and coach, until she essentially fell into the fire service. “I never had an AHA moment where I thought to apply for the fireys. It was more thanks to colleagues and people in my rugby network encouraging me to give it a go. I did. They were right. I loved it from day one.” In 2016, after more than a decade on the firefighting frontlines, Fire and Rescue NSW grew increasingly aware that 93% of a firefighter’s role - whose sole objective is to save lives - is achieved via community prevention measures, while 7% of the life-saving task is spent in the heat of rescue. Bronnie was once more at the frontlines, but now assisting her organisation’s drive to find ways of recruiting a more diverse work force.
She received a Churchill Fellowship, a grant which provides funds for overseas travel to research world’s best practice. Travelling the world, she discovered that far from quotas or government mandates paving the way, encouraging women into a firefighting career was achieved with great success via girls' fire camps. So, in 2018, Girls on Fire was set up.
“You can’t be what you can’t see, so with Girls on Fire we run week-long camps for 15-19year olds. We show them everything; fire science, trauma classes, extinguishing simulated fires, abseiling, raft building, getting in the fire truck and taking part in simulated rescues as we race around the bush. The girls learn teamwork, have to think on their feet to solve the problems we throw at them, use their bodies to build rafts or whatever they can in order to facilitate a rescue. You want to talk about empowerment? Show a girl she has the ability to save someone from dying in a fire, you see an empowered young woman standing tall. It’s incredibly powerful.”Not every girl will go on to become a firefighter, but the skills they learn become talking points with their family and friends, very rapidly informing the community around them about fire safety. A perfect win-win for recruitment and awareness.