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CFA training ground a perfect fit for Richie

22 December 2023

As the flames spring forth from under the car, they wrap themselves around the chassis in a close embrace - the white heat morphing into an orange sheet of flame as it leaps skywards off the car’s roof. Up above, the air is already thick with dark grey-black smoke from the fire, as it twists in an oddly graceful spiral up towards the clouds overhead. Back on the ground, there is much activity. A fire engine has parked nearby, and CFA (Country Fire Authority) firefighters are at work unfurling hoses and attaching them to the tanker. This completed, they advance towards the roaring blaze, and with practiced skill aim a steady stream of water at the fire in efforts to bring the blaze under control. 

This may sound like a terrible traffic accident at a service station or on the roadside, but it is in fact a training exercise at the Victorian Emergency Management Training Centre (VEMTC) in Wangaratta. Burning cars and buildings are a common sight here, as they provide a realistic firefighting environment in which both trainees and experienced firefighters can hone their fire management skills.  It's all in a day’s work for the volunteers here, but for Practical Area Drill (PAD) Supervisor Richie Gardner, this place has a special hold over him. 

It has been an incredible journey for Richie, who has been a dedicated volunteer for over 35 years. From his beginnings as a recruit firefighter at 17, Richie’s career has been intertwined with the Wangaratta facility.  

"I can remember coming to this facility as a recruit firefighter, learning how to protect yourself using the fog nozzle from radiant heat, and similar techniques to what we do today. I got very interested in the facility, and in 1998 a position came up for a casual employee to look after the facility. From there I went full time, and I've been here ever since. I’m passionate about the training, following on from what I learned, being able to offer a great facility for our volunteers, firefighters, and other emergency services across the state." 

Although small in size, the Wangaratta VEMTC campus provides 70 operational drills for staff to tackle, ranging from wearing breathing apparatus in a hostile environment to attacking a service station fully involved with fire, hazardous material scenarios, and motor vehicle accident scenarios. 

“We build our props and infrastructure so that each piece can be used in a number of ways.” 

“The emphasis is on training for real-world scenarios, regardless of whether someone is a new recruit or a seasoned firefighter. Constantly training for different scenarios, understanding limitations, and finding solutions under pressure are crucial skills.” 

As daunting as the training may be, Richie finds that volunteers consistently rise to the challenge. "Our volunteers are fantastic; they contribute any day or night. They come here to train on courses, upskill, and go above and beyond. From a young age, I was taught by my father that a fire brigade is crucial in your community, whether you're paid or a volunteer. One day, you never know what the fire brigade will need to offer you in a time of need." 

VEMTC Wangaratta covers a broad area of Victoria, providing training for a wide range of firefighters from different districts. The facility is not just for skills acquisition but also for skills maintenance training. Collaboration with personnel from other emergency services is another crucial aspect. 

For Richie and other members of VEMTC, the advantages of these campuses are clear. "These facilities across the state are fantastic because they allow volunteers to train in their own environment and area. It saves them from having to go away for extended periods on weekends or long courses, offering a great facility in their backyard that they can utilize." 

Wangaratta is one of eight VEMTCs operated by the CFA in Victoria, with the others at Bangholme, Central Highlands, Huntly, Longerenong, Penshurst, Sunraysia, and West Sale.