Just 18 months ago, the future of this South Australian Country Fire Service (CFS) brigade was looking bleak. 

Key points:

  • With only a handful of active members, a Port Wakefield’s CFS station was facing closure
  • Members of the local Filipino community have boosted member numbers
  • With new Filipino and female recruits, the stations’ firefighters have more than doubled

With just six active members, Port Wakefield CFS Captain Warren Miller initiated an urgent grassroots recruitment campaign. 

“It was either … do something, or the place is going to close,” Captain Miller said.

Enter Samson Bucol, a Port Wakefield resident who immigrated to Australia from the Philippines in 2014.

He was the sole respondent to Captain Miller’s recruitment call-out and became the first culturally diverse member of the local CFS brigade.

“They gave me a warm welcome and good treatment,” Mr Bucol said.

The new firefighter invited more of his friends to join the brigade, and now more than a quarter of the team’s adult volunteers and half its young cadets are of Filipino descent.

Samson Bucol says joining the CFS has been the greatest experience of his life.(ABC North and West: Isabella Carbone)

“We really made it a point to try and make them feel really welcome, because we want to keep these people and we want them to turn up and keep turning up,” Captain Warren said.

“We even started learning Filipino words, like ‘salamat’ means ‘thank you’.”

The station is located on one of the state’s busiest highways, connecting Adelaide to the Yorke Peninsula and Spencer Gulf, and is near broadacre cropping land that has experienced devastating fires such as the deadly 2015 Pinery fire.   

The new recruits have bolstered the brigade’s ability to respond to critical road incidents and other emergencies.

“That’s made me very proud of myself, that as a Filipino we are well known, that we are not a bad people and we are really doing well in the community,” Mr Bucol said.

“That is the best experience that I’ve ever had.”

Fostering cultural connection 

Prior to the CFS recruitment drive, interaction between local Filipino residents and the wider Port Wakefield community was limited.

“We have a pub culture, so you’ll go to the pub and have a beer with your mates and we had never seen [members of the Filipino community] … we never really met them,” Captain Miller explained.

Half of the CFS cadets in Port Wakefield are of Filipino descent.(ABC North and West: Isabella Carbone)

That all changed when Mr Bucol joined the CFS and encouraged his friends to get involved too.

“It’s been great for our town because now the two communities are mixed together,” Captain Miller said.

In 2021, 11.6 per cent of the town’s 600-strong population had Filipino ancestry, compared with the 1.2 per cent of the state-wide population and 1.2 per cent of the country’s population.

The new face of the CFS

It is not just cultural diversity that has changed in this CFS brigade. 

Lisa Welke has wanted to be a firefighter since she was seven years old.

As the newest member of the Port Wakefield CFS brigade, she’s fulfilled a childhood dream while also becoming part of wave of women volunteering in a traditionally male environment.

Lisa Welke has wanted to be a firefighter since she was seven years old.(ABC North and West: Isabella Carbone)

As of July, 2023, a fifth of SA CFS firefighters identified as female, while across the country women’s representation in frontline emergency service sector roles increased by 22 per cent over the past five years.

In Port Wakefield, women make up about a third of adult volunteers and half of the young cadets, and Captain Miller estimates the brigade will reach equal gender representation in the next few years.

Ms Welke encouraged any country community members with even the “slightest urge” to sign up to the CFS.

“You learn so much and it helps bring out the confidence as well, and you make new mates, new family, even,” she said. 

The Port Wakefield brigade is on track to reach 50/50 gender representation soon.(ABC North and West: Isabella Carbone)

SA CFS chief officer Brett Loughlin said the service was committed achieving gender equality and creating respectful and inclusive workplaces.

“CFS volunteers are the backbone of our agency, and we proudly support, encourage and provide equal opportunities to all our members,” he said.

“The CFS continually engages with our members to proactively drive inclusiveness and embrace diverse cultures, ages and genders, so that we can reflect the communities we proudly serve.”