Shepparton firefighters receive CFA life memberships

By Liz Mellino

Not many people go to work in the morning having no idea where they will end up at the end of their shift.

But travelling to the far corners of our region is all in a day's work for Paul McKendrick and Mark Whitehead.

Whether it's to fight bushfires and devastating structure blazes or to protect the safety and welfare of the community, these two have given their all to the Country Fire Authority — so it's only fitting that both were awarded life memberships to the organisation last month in recognition of a total of 75 years of service and dedication between them.

“It was a very nice gesture on behalf of the CFA — I was very surprised,” Paul said.

“It's the best job in the world.”

Having joined the CFA when he was just 14 years old, service to the local fire brigade clearly runs in Paul's blood.

Starting off in Balmattum, he then volunteered at the Hoppers Crossing brigade before heading up to Shepparton 31 years ago where he has worked as a career firefighter ever since.

“We were on the farm over at Balmattum, and with farming life it's sort of just expected that you're a member of the local brigade. Dad was the lieutenant there for decades, so I just went along,” Paul said.

“Community service was probably my main factor for staying, but the adrenaline is also a big part of it early on.”

Family ties were also the reason Mark joined his local brigade three decades ago when he was about 16 years old.

Becoming a career member in 2007, he made the move to Shepparton where he has served for the past 13 years — marking an impressive 30 years of service to the CFA.

It's clear the fast-paced nature of their roles as senior station officers and the ever changing environment in which they work keeps the duo on their toes.

Paul McKendrick marked an impressive 45 years with the CFA this year, earning himself a life membership.

The Shepparton Fire Station received an astonishing 1080 calls for assistance in the past financial year — averaging about three incidents a day.

Working 10-hour day shifts and 14-hour night shifts, it's clear the role is not for the faint-hearted.

However both Paul and Mark agree the job is worth the tedious hours.

“We do get quite a lot of calls, maybe it's just where we are situated in Victoria. It's great though, it makes it interesting,” Mark said.

“We work a lot of weekends, but I'm used to the hours now.

“We have got good support networks and our crew are good supports — we’re all there for each other, so there is good camaraderie on the shift, and at the station we all look after each other.”

With all the good times however comes the bad, and the pair has witnessed a fair share of devastation.

In his 45 years with the CFA Paul has been at the front-line of many fires which have changed communities.

Two large coolstore fires come to mind, with one in Callister St, Shepparton, burning for two weeks and requiring around-the-clock CFA attendance.

Paul admits however that no job compares to emergency medical response calls — a role which the CFA took on about eight years ago.

“Some pretty sad stories turn up there. A lot of jobs we go to end up being deceased so there’s been a few very, very sad outcomes there,” he said.

“You don’t forget those incidents but you deal with them and file them away.”

It is evident Shepparton Fire Station is home to a strong group whose members support each other through tough times such as these.

The station now has 55 career firefighters, more than five times the amount compared to when Paul joined 31 years ago.

While the numbers continue to grow, Paul said so too did the camaraderie among the group's members.

Mark Whitehead has received a life membership for 30 years of service to the CFA.

Mark agreed it was this mateship which helped get them through tough events such as the scorching summer bushfires each year.

“Fighting summer bushfires feels like you are wearing a doona and then standing in front of a huge bonfire,” he said.

“Those days require lots of water and electrolytes — litres upon litres.”

Paul and Mark were not the only Shepparton Fire Brigade members to be recognised last week for their achievements, with senior station officers Michael Masters and Scott Walters also receiving medals for 30 years of service.

As for the future, Paul and Mark said they had no plans to move on from the CFA.

Both agreed the experiences they had been given and the opportunities to travel the state made the job unlike any other, and they encouraged everyone to consider a career or volunteer position with their local fire brigade.

“Whether you’re volunteering or here as a career member, you do get some opportunities that you may not often get (otherwise),” Mark said.

“I went up to the fires in Grafton last year and I came home on a Hercules C17 charter Air Force airplane so that was a bit of an experience in itself — let alone going to the fires and seeing something different up there.

“I may move away in future down the track, but at this stage I'm happy to stay here and protect Shepparton.”