The Firefighter Blues

 

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Preface

Here is my life condensed to 90000 words. I'm thrilled that I can now share these words with you.

I've attempted to be a storyteller while remaining as factually accurate as my memory would allow. When it failed me, family, friends and work mates came to my aid. 

In relation to my time spent as a Firefighter, I would have preferred to write an unexpurgated account of events, but the fear of a lawsuit tends to restrict one's capacity for the 'whole truth'. I found it impossible to include every incident, acquaintance, twist and turn. I could have added another 100 pages - maybe next time.

While writing my autobiography, I was very mindful not to overdose, you the reader, with pages and pages of tortured prose. The Firefighter Blues is a book full of adventure, humour, fear, elation and sadness, with an unavoidable hint of bitterness and frustration.

Regarding certain delicate issues, I've sought consent where possible, otherwise, names, dates or locations have been changed for privacy reasons.

 I've done my best to describe my feelings during the more traumatic incidents rather than focus on the gruesome details, but there are instances where I couldn't separate the two, so you may find certain events disturbing. My intention was never to sensationalise any particular incident, but rather, provide some insight into how and why I came to suffer the debilitating effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). My story is constantly interrupted by random calls to fires, car accidents, rescues and other unsavoury incidents, hopefully giving you, the reader, a taste of what it’s like to be me.

I've always been a ruminator, a ponderer of the past, which is a wonderful attribute to have when writing an autobiography. Sadly, it is also a curse. Warm and fuzzy recollections share equal billing with the more horrific memories that cling to my brain like barnacles on a rusty hull. Perhaps its a trait that all PTSD sufferers share. 

Writing The Firefighter Blues has opened some old wounds and healed others. The experience has been cathartic, painful, hilarious and heartbreaking - I wish I could do it all again.

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PROLOGUE

I hate this place. The patients scare me, the staff scare me, the locked doors scare me. The instruments with their jumbled mesh of wires and tubes, the guarded drug cupboard, the crisp, folded bed sheets, the soiled linen basket, the beeps buzzers and bells, it all scares me.

I don’t belong here.

I was once a young, fit firefighter, proud, confident and optimistic. Back then, nothing scared me. Now I find myself languishing in a mental health institution in Sydney’s south-west. I feel old beyond my years. A sideways glance in the mirror near the nurses’ station is confirmation enough. That grey, unkempt beard, those dark lines under the eyes and that pale, hoary skin belongs to someone else.

Surely that’s not me.

I’m shaking in my socks as I join the conga line of quivering ghosts, all heading for a hole in the wall where an overly cheery nurse doles out our morning medication.

Who are these people?

If they do happen to glance my way, their eyes offer nothing. Surely I’m not one of them – they are soulless, vacant, hollow. It’s like invisible, emotion-sucking vampires have drained them.

I’m sure the young girl ahead of me in the line has left her self-esteem on the other side of the locked entrance door. Her matted hair hasn’t felt a brush in days and her grimy toes can be seen protruding from her extra-large, extra-grubby, faded pyjama pants. It’s obvious that dignity is far less important on this side of the door.

I don’t belong here.

I’m a decorated firefighter, or at least I used to be.

Twenty-five years ago, I was at the NSW Fire Brigades’ Training College. I was a keen recruit, bouncing from one training drill to the next. Physically and psychologically, I was in my prime with the world at my feet. The instructors trained me well. They taught me everything they could then sent me off with all that I needed to become a proud member of the New South Wales Fire Brigades.

They told me their war stories, showed me videos and photographs of what I might see. They did their best to prepare me for what lay ahead. What they couldn’t teach me was how I’d feel, what I’d hear, what I’d smell and what I’d remember. They didn’t tell me that I would, initially, receive very little help dealing with the aftermath of horrors that can’t be unseen.

Had I known, would I still have signed up? Some days … yes, some days the answer is a definite NO.

Back then they didn’t tell me I would be locked up in a mental health ward, yet here I am, inching closer to the hole in the wall where the nurse will watch me throw back a small plastic cup full of coloured pills. The only view of the sky is from a small rectangular yard with three-metre high, concrete walls. The area is continually shrouded in cigarette smoke. It smells disgusting, like a soggy ashtray. Lately, smells trigger dreadful memories, so I avoid that place at all costs. I’d rather spend my time staring at the dreary walls of my room. After all, I’ve spent my life hiding behind walls, some that I’ve created, others built by those close to me.

A favourite saying of mine …

‘Will anything you do today make a positive difference to your world? If the answer is no – then stay in bed.’

Lately, all I want to do is crawl back under the covers. I feel I have nothing worthwhile to contribute.

Someone in the lounge area is listening to the radio. I’m torn. My ears strain to make out the tune but my brain tells me …

No, block it out, don’t listen.

Will I ever enjoy music again?

How could they do that to me?

The bastards took away my music. They took the one thing that brought me joy then used it against me. I was so naive, I thought the insurance company had a duty of care, I thought they were there to help. In the beginning, they appeared to understand what I was going through. I thought my caseworkers had a true understanding of PTSD and depression. Things changed pretty quickly once my condition worsened and I fell into the ‘too-hard basket’. Dealing with flashbacks, nightmares, alcohol abuse and the never-ending mood swings is difficult enough, but no-one suffering the effects of PTSD can fight the battle on two fronts. The insurance companies are too big, too powerful and have all the time in the world. I’m tired of fighting them, I’m exhausted and ready to accept any crumbs thrown my way.

I remember where I was when man landed on the moon; I remember being told that John Lennon had been killed; I remember Gough Whitlam getting sacked by the Governor General. How is it that I remember all these important events but I don’t remember getting PTSD? It just snuck up on me, stealthily slicing my life in two. My world is divided into the years before PTSD and the years after. I prefer the former but have to live in the latter.

Like a thief, PTSD burgled my brain, stealing all that was good – courage, drive, passion and optimism – leaving me with nothing but useless, dangerous, negative thoughts and emotions.

My ability to concentrate is fading fast so I’ll head to my dorm and scribble down a few more lines of this book. A soothing blanket of calmness has started to spread over my body. Minute by minute, I’m sinking deeper and deeper into a warm, peaceful pool of serenity. The drugs are kicking in …

Maybe I do belong here.

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CHAPTER ONE

The Bells

 

Firefighters around the world will tell you that nothing stirs the blood like the fire station bells. How can one simple sound be so emotive? Excitement, curiosity mixed with trepidation, power and pleasure. It would hit like a hammer, sending my brain into a glorious panic. Beethoven or McCartney could only dream of achieving what one single toneless, rhythm-less bell can do to the human soul.

I joined the NSW Fire Brigades in 1990 and for 10 years, between 1996 and 2006, I was stationed at Macquarie Fields Fire Station. We occupied a block in the suburb of Glenquarie, between the police station and the ambulance station. This was said to be a working-class area, a term from yesteryear as the unemployment rate at the time was one of the highest in Sydney. Macquarie Fields, in particular, Glenquarie was a suburb that had a large Housing Commission (government-assisted accommodation) area located between the Georges River and other private housing estates. It was named after Governor Macquarie (1762–1824) by surveyor James Meehan (1774–1826) in appreciation for 2000 acres of land granted to him by Macquarie.

I held the rank of Senior Firefighter and was a qualified NSW State Rescue Operator. I was a three striper; we were supposedly the ‘cranky old bastards’ who had stayed in the job way too long. We weren’t officers, just ‘baggy-arsed firies’ who had laboured for too many years at the coalface. Although my enthusiasm for action had long gone, I was still hyper-vigilant, always on edge, a strange concoction of emotions that plagued older firies, particularly the ‘rescue dicks’.

So, I rolled up for another night shift. It began like all the rest – a quick chat with the off-going shift while changing into my uniform. I threw my frozen dinner into the microwave, allowing myself to be hypnotised by the rotating plastic container. As usual, I was a little on edge but thinking of nothing in particular, just daydreaming and ready to catch up with my crew around the mess room table.

Then thud! Like a punch in the gut, the air was energised with the screaming of the station bells.

My first instinct was to press stop on the microwave. I’d been caught before. As I locked the mess room door and headed down the hall, I was trying to convince myself it was just another ‘Joey’, that’s what we called false alarms or ‘nothing calls’. A quick run in the truck and I would be back in no time, feasting on my gourmet curried chicken and rice. With the bells still echoing through the station, I made my way to the watch room where the duty officer handed me a copy of the printout from the station teleprinter. Immediately, four words leapt from the page.

Person hit by train.

Everything else seemed a blur.

Then, like soldiers deserting the battlefield, every emotion ran from my body, and I was left with just one – dread. It seemed like minutes but, in reality, it was only a few seconds before my breathing settled and I regained my composure.

Person hit by train, Minto Railway Station. There were map coordinates and line after line of Fire Brigades jargon. I grabbed my helmet and turnout coat (firefighting jacket) from my peg and jumped into a backseat of the waiting fire truck.

My fire station was one of the designated rescue stations. Our truck was a specialised vehicle carrying more than a tonne of extra equipment, vital for extricating people or animals from just about every unfortunate situation imaginable. In particular, road and rail accidents, industrial entrapments, high angle building and cliff rescues and, yes, cats in trees. It carried a crew of four, two of whom had to be state-certified rescue operators, highly trained in rescue above and beyond that of a general firefighter. Our crew of four were all rescue qualified. The Station Officer sat up front with our driver, Neil Mahony, while Bill Spek and I jumped in the back.

There was no need to look at the map. We had been to Minto railway station dozens of times, mainly for false alarms activating or other joeys. We all lived locally so choosing the quickest route wasn’t an issue. What we did need to sort out was the best side of the station to position our truck. The printout, now in the boss’s gloved hand, told us ‘southbound track’. That meant a shorter drive, which was ideal; we all knew that every second counts and any minor delay could be the difference between life and death. As our heavy-laden truck lurched and swayed like an overloaded camel, we trundled through the streets of Macquarie Fields and Minto, past modest cottages that housed enough nationalities to rival an Olympic village: Anglo-Saxons, Pacific Islanders, Indians, Australian Aborigines, Chinese, Vietnamese and Pakistanis, all cooking evening meals, resulting in a pleasant potpourri which wafted through our open windows, fighting for attention with the foul stench of sweat and stale smoke that permeated the truck’s cabin. With our siren screaming through the suburbs we overtook a struggling pushbike rider. I’m not sure why, but my immediate thought was, I wonder if he’s experiencing the doppler effect. I often think of odd things at odd times.

Fear of the unknown is a very real fear and, sometimes, for me at least, the excruciating weight of expectation could be as heavy as the truck I was riding in. Although I was the senior rescue operator among the crew, an inspirational pep talk was the furthest thing from my already cluttered mind. I would leave that for the boss, although, he would have his hands full juggling all the radio messages and organising additional crews and resources. I certainly didn't want any added pressure, it didn’t sit well with me; I had a habit of awfulising incidents and often doubted my ability to be a leader. A trait, no doubt, handed down from my father, which was probably the reason I was still a baggy-arsed firie and not a high-ranking officer like some of my college mates.

There was another crew turning out with us, from our neighbouring fire station, Ingleburn. That was a ‘retained station’, that is, they were a part-time station. This meant that when their pagers activated, they would down tools at their workplace or stop whatever they were doing at home, jump into their cars and drive to the fire station. The truck could then proceed to the incident only when the minimum number of crew members arrived. From the radio chatter filling our cab, we knew Ingleburn were on their way but were a few minutes behind us.

As Neil swung our truck into the railway station carpark, my head was spinning with past training drills, rescue protocols, scenarios and scene assessments. Trying to ignore my whirring nerve ends was like trying to ignore a toothache.

If the poor victim was actually under the train, I needed to liaise with the railway station personnel, place a signaller up and down the track, lower the carriage pantographs, locate the driver and ensure he has removed the keys, chock the wheels, decide on the equipment needed. Had I forgotten anything? Oh yeah, take a few deep breaths and calm down.

Once on the platform, I was confronted by a very young uniformed cop. It was bad; I could see it on his face, his contorted brow and owl-like eyes gave him away, his cover was blown, his bravado had abandoned him. Along with the stationmaster, they confirmed my worst fears.

The stationmaster whispered, ‘A teenage boy jumped down onto the tracks.’

Apparently, for reasons unknown at the time, he had laid his head on the cold steel rail then waited for the inevitable to happen. This was confirmed later by the station’s CCTV footage and the train driver:

‘I saw someone lying on the track from over 100 metres away but I just couldn’t stop in time.’

The boy was located two carriages back, still under the train. There was a very high probability he was dead, but at that stage we just couldn’t be sure. Owing to the shape of the train’s lower panels and his location in relation to the station platform, in the dimming light, we could just make out what appeared to be an arm. It was impossible to confirm if we were going to carry out a rescue or retrieve a body, although I think we all knew.

The extended side panelling on modern trains give the impression that they sit low on the tracks. Thankfully this helped to obscure the boy from commuters. Due to the victim’s location, it became painfully obvious that we would have to gain access from the platform side; we could only reach the boy by crawling through the tunnel-like area between the side of the carriages and the overhanging platform. We would have to start at the front and make our way back two carriages until we reached him. It was relatively dark and torchlight was all we had until the crews could set up permanent lighting.

It was difficult to crawl, even though we were wearing our heavy over-trousers the jagged stones forming the track ballast cut into our knees. The low height of the platform overhang made it impossible to stand upright so we just did our best alternating between a duck-like waddle and a hunched crawl. Luckily, we weren’t dragging too much in the way of heavy rescue gear. During a quick inspection we decided that any equipment we needed could be passed down to us between the platform and the carriage once we reached the desired location. The gap was only 300 millimetres or so but hopefully that would be enough. Sadly, the only gear we took with us was a couple of body bags and a few smaller zip-lock plastic bags to collect any ‘bits and pieces’ that we were likely to come across.

It was dark and cramped, with just enough room to crawl single file. I was up front followed by Bill and Neil.

We had made it past the first carriage when small, unrecognisable fragments of flesh started appearing. I convinced myself that these ghastly little chunks hadn’t come from a human being; it was just like something you’d see on a butcher shop bench – offcuts. I picked up what I could reach and placed them in the zip-lock bags. I assumed the other guys were doing the same. We hardly spoke a word; there was nothing to say. Besides, I was certain my thumping heart beat would’ve drowned out any conversation.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but one day that scene would come back to haunt me.

We shuffled further down the track, careful not to miss anything or damage the scene. Our collective uneasiness seemed to thicken the atmosphere. The tension was heavy and debilitating. I could feel beads of perspiration rolling down my breastbone and the salty sweat from my forehead seemed to form a continuous, ant-like trail to my eyes. My need to continually squint was a distraction I didn’t need. 

‘How long was this carriage?’ someone asked.

It seemed to take forever to reach him. Then, just as my torchlight caught a glimpse of a disfigured silhouette, it hit me: the smell. It was death. I’m not talking about the pungent smell of a rotting corpse. This was the aroma of death. It’s the subtle smell of every organ shutting down, of fluids that have stopped circulating; the smell of a brain that ceases to think and eyes that trickle tears as the heart completes its terminal beat. It’s a staleness that clings to nasal hairs like fleas on a dog. It was death, we all knew it; once again we didn’t feel the need to speak.

Sadly, the young boy’s plan had worked to perfection. The train wheels left a ghastly rut that ran through his neck and face. Everything was held together by paper thin flesh and skin, flattened by the enormous weight of the train.

It was times like that, through painful practice, I had learned to remove myself from the situation, at least some of the time. I would tell myself:

It’s nothing human – it’s just something I have to place into a bag. No big deal.

On countless occasions in the past, I had rescued victims from the most horrific car accidents, yet I couldn’t tell you one significant thing about them. Not hair colour, age, clothing … nothing. Sometimes I didn’t even notice if they were male or female. I found it much easier to do my job if I dehumanised the poor souls and place as much emotional distance between me and the unfortunate victims as possible. I was to find out many years later, that doesn’t work forever. As traumatic as it was, we had volunteered to be rescue firefighters. I loved being involved, loved the engineering aspect, the pride of having ‘Rescue’ on my helmet and just being able to get my hands dirty while helping the community. I was a lab technician and a qualified fitter and machinist when I joined the Fire Brigades – a tradie – so I was very confident when using the various tools required at rescue incidents. I enjoyed the challenge and the analytical aspects. In the early days, assessing complex incidents and quickly working out the best plan of attack was something that appealed to me. I loved the practical aspect of being a firefighter, which is probably another reason I held back studying for higher ranking positions. I was a hands-on bloke and wanted to stay that way. Also, concentrating on the practicalities of the job at hand allowed me to avoid dealing with any harrowing, heart-rending feelings that were trying to manipulate my thought process.

Be the hard arse now. There will be plenty of time later on to deal with the emotional consequences.

I once believed I am not my emotions, I am me.

Today, I believe the two are inseparable.

I could tell from the mutterings from the rest of our crew that no-one liked the idea of dragging the poor kid over sleepers and rocks to the front of the train, even if he was in a body bag. We all felt he deserved to be treated with a little more dignity.

Also, from a practical point of view, which was the only view we could allow ourselves at the time, it would be extremely difficult, time-consuming and bloody hard work to drag him to the front of the train. I was able to talk to our boss through the gap between the carriage and platform. He knelt down so I could just see his face. I assumed the inevitable spectators were starting to gather and I just couldn’t be sure whether any relatives were at the scene, so in a hushed voice, I told the boss and crew:

‘We’ll untangle the boy from the train’s undercarriage, place him in a body bag and slide him under the overhanging station platform. We can then cover him and our smaller bags with the salvage sheet. Once he is secured, we’ll crawl back to the front of the train and get out.’ Then, with all safety protocols in place, the train could be moved slowly up the track to a point where we could access the victim and respectfully remove him from the scene. 

The plan was confirmed by all parties involved and the extrication process was carried out perfectly. Einstein once predicted that time slows down as we approach the speed of light. My heart felt like it was pumping at the speed of light and time definitely slowed down. The entire retrieval only took around 40 minutes to complete, yet it felt like hours.

We were all pretty happy to get out from under that train. Little did I know I would go back under there, time and again, night after night for years to come.

~

Although it was a very gory and horrific scene, the blood and guts disturbed me the least. In relation to that particular incident, the hardest thing for me to deal with was, and still is, guilt. As I was delicately untwisting body parts from the unforgiving steel undercarriage, I kept thinking, Thank God, he’s dead. It wasn’t because of any pain or suffering this poor kid would have to endure; I was praying he was dead long before I arrived at the scene, because a live victim is much harder to deal with. There is less pressure carrying out a body retrieval than rescuing a living, breathing human being who may require intensive first aid, if conscious, probably kicking and screaming, or at the very least groaning in pain. I didn’t want any complications. It was much easier not having to set up intricate hydraulic and pneumatic rams, jacks and cutters. It was pure selfishness on my part and coping with those types of feelings has haunted me my entire life. I have children of my own, how could I have wished this on someone else’s kids?

I later spent hundreds of hours with psychologists over many years trying to explain away, or somehow justify, my thinking. I’m not sure I’ll ever come to understand some of my unsavoury thoughts and emotions, but one day, I might learn to live with them.

Heading back to the fire station, it was dark and quiet in the back of the truck. With the windows down the night air cooled our sweat-soaked shirts as our truck meandered peacefully through the darkened streets of Macquarie Fields. No sirens or flashing lights. Our homeward bound trip was decidedly less frantic than our earlier run to the railway station. I stared deep into the moonless sky and tried to make sense of it all. The silence had an eeriness which I found disturbing. No discussions, no debriefing or brigade banter – just silence.

Perhaps they were all thinking the same as I was:

Another successful body retrieval; another story for the pub tomorrow and another nightmare lodged deep in the back of my brain. I need to stay strong.

~

Unlike fires, adrenaline is our enemy during rescue incidents. Having every nerve-ending spark into life while blood speeds through our veins, energising extremities, widening pupils and fine-tuning ear drums is ideal if we’re running from a lion, or in our case, kicking down doors, rushing into blazing buildings or dragging heavy water-charged hoses through burning scrub. Rescues are different. Sometimes it's like sewing on a button during a landslide. Making tiny incremental adjustments to tools and equipment, developing extrication plans for the safe removal of the victim and trying to concentrate on intricate, delicate and complicated rescue procedures is challenging enough without the intrusive behaviour of our thrashing, screaming hyper-activated brain. It’s a real challenge for firefighters. Remaining calm and grounded while your brain tries to switch into fight-or-flight mode is counter-intuitive and when repeated over and over, year after year, can have dire psychological consequences.

Even back then I knew, eventually, something had to give. I just didn’t know what to do about it. During that era, for me, male bravado trumped common sense every time. Very little help was available in the way of counselling and the culture of the times ensured that seeking assistance would be seen as a sign of weakness. I was just too embarrassed to cry for help.

A few days later, a couple of cops from the police station next door paid a visit to our station. They filled us in over a cup of tea in the mess room.

‘The kid under the train was a 15-year-old boy, who, for years, had been the victim of bullying.’

It seemed like all flexible thinking had abandoned him and he chose death over the life he had. Today I have a better understanding of how he must have felt. At that time, I remember thinking …

Where was his support? Where were his parents?

How could he let things get to that point? Why didn’t he just get help?

I could never do what he did.

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CHAPTER TWO

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TANKER 8, ASSISTANCE REQUIRED, TRUCK MVA, LIVERPOOL

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CHAPTER THREE

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CHAPTER FOUR

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CHAPTER FIVE

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RESCUE 84, MVA PERSONS TRAPPED, GLENFIELD

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CHAPTER SIX

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CHAPTER SEVEN

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RESCUE 84, ASSIST DOCS, LOCK OUT, MACQUARIE FIELDS

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CHAPTER EIGHT

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CHAPTER NINE

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RESCUE 84 MACQUARIE FIELDS, TRAIN INCIDENT MINTO RAILWAY STATION

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CHAPTER TEN

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Photographs

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CHAPTER ELEVEN

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FIRE CALL, HOUSE ALIGHT, MACQUARIE FIELDS

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CHAPTER TWELVE

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RESCUE 84, MVA, PERSONS TRAPPED, EAGLEVIEW ROAD

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CHAPTER THIRTEEN

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NO.8 LIVERPOOL, RESCUE, MVA, HEATHCOTE ROAD

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CHAPTER FOURTEEN

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CHAPTER FIFTEEN

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MACQUARIE FIELDS RESCUE PUMPER, FARM ACCIDENT

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CHAPTER SIXTEEN

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CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

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MACQUARIE FIELDS RESCUE PUMPER, CALL TO UNIT ALIGHT

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CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

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CHAPTER NINETEEN

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CHAPTER TWENTY

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CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

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CHAPTER TWENTY- TWO

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CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

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CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

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CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

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MACQUARIE FIELDS RESCUE PUMPER, CALL TO MVA. PERSONS TRAPPED…APPIN ROAD

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CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

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Don't let fear stop you - ask for help

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ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

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~

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