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30 October 2019
By Lotte Reiter
Ask anyone who knows Peter Solly, and they will likely describe him as an affable character who is always willing to help.
The 68-year-old has toiled for much of his life as a Country Fire Authority, CFA, group officer, overseeing the Rainbow, Werrap, Pigick and Kenmare fire brigades.
A National Medal recipient and CFA life-member, Peter was behind the management of major incidents including Black Saturday and the 2015 Moyston fires.
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And looking back on about half a century of service – so far – he said the biggest reward was the knowledge that he had made a positive difference in other peoples’ lives.
“This is something that has always interested me, and something valuable that I can contribute,” he said.
“I find it a challenge, but there’s a sense of achievement out of doing something for others.”
Peter joined Werrap Fire Brigade eight days after his 18th birthday.
He said at the time, Jim Sleep was the brigade captain, and he enlisted Peter’s help to install the first VHF two-way radios used in the area.
Peter then attended university to study maths, science and electrical engineering, shifting to the Western District in 1975 to work as a secondary school teacher at Lake Bolac.
It was soon after that he experienced his first major fire, and learned invaluable lessons he would take with him through the rest of his CFA career.
“On February 12, 1977, several major fires occurred in the Western District. With other teaching friends, I joined the Lake Bolac brigade that afternoon and immediately went out to Streatham as potential relief crew,” he said.
“There was little that we could do that evening. But we spent many sessions during the following weeks carting donated hay, cleaning up burnt farm sheds and doing other relief work.
“I learned a lot from experiencing the impact and aftermath of those fires.”
In the years following, Peter joined the Rainbow brigade, worked as a brigade and group communications officer and group secretary, before becoming group officer in 1991 – a role he left this year. “Prior to becoming group officer, I had been a member of the newly formed CFA District 17 operational planning committee as a representative with an interest and experience in communications,” he said.
“This committee was the forerunner of the current district planning committee. For much of my time on the commitee, I was chair or deputy chair, part of the executive and several sub-committees, and represented District 17 at state level.”
Peter said District 17 encompassed 13 CFA groups in western Victoria.
Retired District 17 operations manager Dale Russell worked with Peter during his time on the district planning committee.
“With me being executive officer on the committee, we worked very closely together,” Dale said.
“I came here in 1996, so I’ve known Peter since then. He’s a very community-minded person and always willing to give his time.
“And we’ve got a number of these guys who, to be perfectly honest, fly under the radar. In a broader sense, the general community probably doesn’t know how much they’re contributing.”
Having worked as a group officer and taken on ‘more of a management role’ in the CFA, Peter knows there is more to the organisation than simply putting water on to flames.
“We look at what needs to be done to manage the spread of fires and how we can get information to the public,” he said.
“You also have to learn to set up a team in such a way that you’re able to work in any person’s presence or absence, with people who will step up when it is needed.”
In the CFA, working together as one is vital, and a big part of being able to do so is having effective communication.
Peter said he had witnessed many changes to the way the CFA operates since starting his career in 1969.
He said when he first started as Rainbow rural brigade communications officer, they had two AWA six-channel radios and a magneto phone, connected to a manual telephone exchange.
“I would sit at the radio base and keep track of what was going on. I rapidly learned that the tone of the response told you as much about what was happening, if not more, than what was actually being said,” he said.
“With access to VicFire, incident channels and mobile smart phones, we now have far better communication available from our forward control vehicles than we have from our group headquarters, with the advantage of being able to see what is happening.
“Mobile phones and the internet have changed the way we do business.”
Peter said community expectations and the importance of volunteer safety had also largely evolved.
“Things are changing all the time,” he said.
“The number-one thing that is different is the community’s expectations. People expect to know what is going on and they expect better protection.
“And there’s far more emphasis on volunteer safety. Something the chief is really pushing now is making sure everyone comes home safe.”
Peter, now a member of Werrap Fire Brigade after a recent transfer from Rainbow, is a well-versed volunteer.
During his time as group officer, he also completed a stint as a community ambulance officer, on-top of being a member of other community organisations and sporting groups.
While he said he was aware of being time poor in managing family, work and volunteering, it was rewarding to have an opportunity to get to know and work with a wide range of people, and something he could continue to look back on proudly.
“The best rewards are being able to look back and see that you have achieved something, made a positive difference and helped out when there was a need,” he said.
The entire Lifestyle Wimmera Edition 5 is available online. READ IT HERE!