By Aleksandra Bliszczyk
Seymour volunteer firefighter Lesley Read has been awarded the CFA’s highest honour as part of this year’s Queen’s Birthday honour list.
Ms Read is one of 10 Victorian recipients of the Australian Fire Service Medal, after more than 18 years at the Hilldene brigade.
“I got an email about a month ago to tell me I’d been nominated and I … thought someone was taking the mickey out of me,” Ms Read told the Review.
Ms Read’s husband and father-in-law are also volunteer firefighters, and helped her make the decision to join the CFA at a family barbecue almost 20 years ago.
“The guys were sitting around talking about how they needed people, and myself and couple of the ladies said, ‘oh we’ll join’,” she said.
Ms Read joined as a firefighter, then after four years decided to become a peer. Since 2010, she has been the coordinator of the district 12 peer team.
CFA peers provide psychological first aid to operational members, providing immediate support at the scenes of traumatic incidents.
She has been a contact point for people in need and has provided practical intervention and supported firefighters, assessing their needs and referring them to relevant support services.
“Mental health and mental wellbeing is something I’m very passionate about and I think it’s important that firefighters and their families are supported,” she said.
“There have certainly been lots of those moments where I have watched people struggle. We’re not counsellors, we’re there purely as a listening ear and to support them through whatever they’re going through.”
But despite the challenges, she said it was a rewarding role.
“Often seeing people come through the other side of maybe their darkest time, and knowing that you’ve played some small part in helping them [is great],” she said.
“Even if it’s just something as simple as getting them a proper cup of coffee at the staging area, something simple like that and surprisingly enough it can be years later and they’ll remember you.”
Ms Read has also coordinated evacuations, logistics and communications in high-risk situations.
During the 2019-20 bushfire season, Australia’s biggest fires on record, she was deployed within Victoria and New South Wales where she provided assistance to those on the frontline.
She and two other peers from district 12 were deployed with strike teams of firefighters during the summer. They lived and worked together for weeks, leaving at 6am every day and not returning until 2am or later some nights if they were visiting patients in hospital.
She was also deployed to fight the Black Saturday fires, and continues to see the impact on people in the Mitchell, Whittlesea and nearby municipalities.
“It certainly was closer to home, and going into some of the areas that were completely devastated, like Marysville, after it happened was very heartbreaking,” she said.
“But for peers we have to try and be that calming voice, and to be able to go in and support these people, and still today people are being supported by peers.”
Ms Read has seen the CFA change significantly during the past two decades, and does not see herself leaving anytime soon.
“When I joined Hilldene, we were the first female operational firefighters, but I will say that I’ve been very lucky with Hilldene, they are a very inclusive and fair brigade,” she said.
Ms Read said it had been wonderful seeing more women join, including her daughter, now in her 40s, who became the first female lieutenant in her brigade.
“The unfortunate part about the CFA is that it will get into your blood and it’s very hard to get out,” she said.
“Consequently [that’s] why my father-in-law, my husband, my daughter and my son-in-law are all involved.”
Ms Read’s award is now part of her family’s legacy with the CFA, which will no doubt continue.
“It is a big deal and I am truly humbled by it,” she said.
“I love doing what I do, couldn’t do it without the support of my family, and I am just one of 170-plus peers who all do an amazing jobs.”
Mark Hesse awarded Australian Police Medal
SENIOR Sergeant Mark Douglas Hesse has been recognised for his contribution to Victoria Police, awarded with an Australian Police Medal as part of the Queen’s Birthday Honours List.
Sen Sgt Hesse is one of 37 officers to be awarded the medal this year and is among the 1190 Australians to be recognised for their contribution.
With more than 34 years of service, Sen Sgt Hesse has demonstrated an outstanding commitment to police and to the communities he has served
After graduating from the Victoria Police Academy in 1982, Sen Sgt Hesse undertook general duties at Broadmeadows Police Station. He was promoted to senior constable in 1987, before resigning from Victoria Police in 1989.
In 1992, Senior Sergeant Hesse re-joined as a constable serving at Nagambie Police Station for a year, then transferring to Seymour Police Station in 1993.
He was again promoted as Senior Constable and served the communities of Seymour and Puckapunyal until being transferred back to Nagambie in 2001.
Sen Sgt Hesse was promoted to the rank of Sergeant at Craigieburn Police Station in 2002, and subsequently to Kilmore Police Station in 2004 where he developed expertise in the logistics and operations of searches for missing people.
He was upgraded to be the first, and to date the only, senior sergeant in Murrindindi when promoted in 2009.
At Murrindindi, Sen Sgt Hesse worked with the community and police officers who were recovering from the 2009 Black Saturday Bushfires.
As the Municipal Emergency Response Coordinator, he has strengthened partnerships with agencies and police specialists including Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, CFA, Victoria Police’s Search and Rescue Squad and volunteer Bush Search and Rescue, Agriculture Victoria, Game Management Authority, and Murrindindi Shire Council.