By Aleksandra Bliszczyk
Doreen Country Fire Authority captain Chris Maries was awarded a brigade lifetime membership medal at a ceremony on Sunday to mark his retirement after 11 years of volunteer leadership.
CFA chief executive Natalie MacDonald also presented the brigade with a new IVECO 4.4 heavy tanker, named after Mr Maries with his name featuring on the door.
“I’m both honoured and humbled to receive this award,” he said.
“There’s been nothing better than the CFA family and to see people realise that the skills they’ve learned work and that they can do the job, whatever it is – whether it’s internal firefighting or aid.”
As captain, Mr Maries told the Review the most rewarding part of his job was training and mentoring newer members, and watching them succeed.
“I remember we had a double-storey house fire some years ago [in Doreen] and one of the two people I charged to make entry and go upstairs, it was their first time wearing a breathing apparatus in a hostile environment. They went in, came out and after the event, things had calmed down and they wandered over and said ‘wow Chris it actually works doesn’t it?’” he said.
Mr Maries has been a CFA member for two decades, as well as having served as president of Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria Region 14, overseeing 46 brigades.
He has been deployed to almost every major fire since 2003, fighting fires in Tasmania, New South Wales and Victoria, including the Black Saturday fires in 2009.
“We didn’t really have any appreciation for the overall impacts for a few days, but on the other hand we were dealing with things we’d never dealt with before, rather terrible things,” he said.
Mr Maries said post traumatic stress disorder was common among volunteers after Black Saturday.
“We kept making sure we were doing [the available support programs], not hiding behind things, getting things out in the open, talking them out,” he said.
“We kept doing that and to this day any time we have a nasty event we go straight into a sort of psychological first aid, because we don’t want to go backwards; we can’t afford to go backwards.”
Mr Maries became Doreen captain in 2010, and since then has watched demand for CFA services explode.
“[Back then] it was less busy than it is today,” he said.
“We knew it was going to be busy – the area of course was growing. I think back then there might’ve been 3000 residents; today it’s over 20,000.
“We might’ve done something like 100 calls a year; today we do between 220 and 250.”
But he said the member numbers had remained more or less static.
With Doreen’s expansion also came the need for members to learn many new skills such as fighting blazes in larger retail buildings or multi-storey commercial developments, which he said meant the demand on time was ‘tremendous’.
Mr Maries sees the need for more volunteers as essential as the suburb continues to grow, and said recruiting younger members was a challenge.
“Our ability to respond is determined by the availability of our volunteers, our members, and given that we’re a dormitory suburb – in other words [many] people live here and sleep here but they don’t work here – means the availability of our members during the working day is always at a stretch,” he said.
“I’d hate to be a 20-year-old thinking about buying a house these days, I can’t imagine how difficult that looks to a young person, so having time to do these things, therein lies the challenge.”
Mr Maries guessed he spent more time at the CFA than at his job managing his family’s manufacturing business, but he said that was ‘not the norm’.
He said before people signed up to be CFA members they needed to be mindful of how much they could give.
“They’ve got to be very careful that they aren’t overdoing it. The mantra has to be family first, then work, then CFA,” he said.
As he steps into a non-operational role at Doreen CFA, succeeded by incoming captain Robert Bury, Mr Maries’ fondest memories of his captaincy will be the friendships he has formed over the years.
“I’ve done plenty of exciting things, interesting things … but it’s the people and the relationships and the quality of the people that you meet in the journey,” he said.