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Staff spirit rises to the challenge

26 Feb 2020


Drought, fire, wind and flood. It was the summer that had it all but from the adversity comes inspirational stories of survival, community spirit and leadership, including from our own staff.

Many staff took leave during the bushfires, and more recently the floods, to defend and support communities and undoubtedly save lives by volunteering for the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS), NSW State Emergency Service (SES), Australian Defence Reserves and other services.

One staff member who took leave from her role at Nepean Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit to volunteer with the RFS was Barbara Jolley, a Clinical Nurse Consultant.

For the past 18 years Barbara has been a volunteer with the NSW Rural Fire Service - fighting fires, responding to motor vehicle accidents, deploying to emergencies interstate and, as a member of the elite NSW RFS Remote Area Firefighting Team, even rappelling from helicopters despite her fear of heights.

Barbara joined the Silverdale Rural Fire Brigade as a volunteer fire fighter after witnessing the devastation a 40km fire front brought to her community during 2001.

However it was in summer 2019, as Captain of her Brigade, she faced one of the biggest firefighting challenges of her life.

“This fire season was different,” says Barbara.

“It was dry, very dry and extremely hot. The fires were intense.”

Barbara was leading one of many teams battling the Green Wattle Creek fire which burned over 270,000 hectares of land.

“It was the beast that wouldn’t lay down,” says Barbara.

One day the fire suddenly turned against Barbara and her crew in what’s called an ‘over run’. Terrifyingly, it’s when the fire front literally runs over the top of the crew fighting it. A firetruck was their only shelter.

“In the firetruck cabin designed to seat five, there was seven firefighters, a local resident and his dog.

“Literally it was every man and his dog,” Barbara jokes. 

“Thankfully we all made it through, including the dog.”

Barbara embodies the spirit of the many volunteers who risked their lives. She is humble. She is somewhat mystified by the attention her firefighting has generated.

“To be quite honest, being a nurse or a fire fighter are not too dissimilar. Your responsibilities are one and the same. In the hospital, or on the fire ground, you need to have exceptional situational awareness, be proficient in providing quality care and lead by example,” says Barbara.

Not knowing when she would be able to return to work played on Barbara’s mind. She was out fighting fires for six weeks. Her job as a nurse was equally as important as fighting the bushfires but she says she felt well supported by her managers and work colleagues.

“I can’t thank the District enough in supporting me, and other colleagues who were volunteers, to help battle those fires. Not a second thought was given, they said ‘do what you have to do, stay safe and let us know how we can help’.”

Barbara’s achievements were formally recognised on Australia Day this year when she was named Wollondilly citizen of the year for 2020.

“That was quite the surprise. They called my name and I couldn’t move, I just couldn’t believe it, I was only doing my job, something that I loved,” she says.

NBMLHD Chief Executive, Kay Hyman says she is incredibly moved by the stories staff have told her.

“This summer has been devastating for so many, including those in our District. I’m humbled by the community’s response, including our colleagues, who have rallied to fight fires, save life and property and care for both people and animals caught in the path of the fires,” says Kay.