THIS WEEK, thousands of volunteers across the country will be celebrated for the countless hours of volunteer work they undertake to benefit their communities.
The theme for this year's National Volunteer Week, which runs from May 18 to 24, is Changing Communities, Changing Lives.
Members of one group, who embody this theme, are the 55,000 Country Fire Authority volunteers who tirelessly jump from their beds in the middle of the night or leave their day jobs and other commitments to rescue cats from trees, to attend house and bushfires and to respond to road trauma incidents.
Ballarat Fire Brigade, formed in 1856, is operated entirely by volunteers. Located in the heart of the city, the volunteers attend an average of 500 calls as well as fundraise for a variety of causes each year.
Of the almost 80 brigade volunteers - including juniors members, firefighters and non-operational support members - many have been involved with the brigade for decades, including one member who has been a volunteer for almost 65 years.
One of the most prominent families within the brigade is the Harris family.
Russell Harris is the longest serving member in the brigade management team. Joining 48 years ago when he was a teenager with a desire to train with the fire brigade's strong running team, Mr Harris has served as a firefighter as well as in the management team in roles such as secretary for 10 years as well as treasurer for the past 20 years.
When he first joined the brigade in 1972, the station was permanently manned. He remembers the bell ringing to alert volunteers to an incident, with the number of rings indicating the location of the fire. For example, if the bell rang three times, that meant the fire was in Mt Pleasant.
Generally, volunteers would pop into the station on their way to respond, as the permanent staff would write the exact location of the fire on a chalkboard nailed to the front door as they rushed off in the fire truck.
Since then, a lot has changed, but the reason why he returns to the station remains the same.
Even after the running team fizzled out in the late 1990s, as it did in many other brigades, Mr Harris continued volunteering.
He enjoys being a part of the CFA for the role he is able to play within the community.
"You can be a volunteer here and go to a fire and when you step away, you physically see that you've helped someone," he said.
"It's the same as being a volunteer with other groups, at the end of the day. You give what spare time you've got to an organisation and you get something back.
"It's all about not being selfish. That's the key to it."
For Mr Harris, volunteering runs in the family. His brothers are also involved with various organisations, including Scouts, Lifeline, the Uniting Church and with the Ballarat Begonia Festival and all volunteered with the brigade at some point in their lives. His mum, meanwhile, was made a life member.
"The family was always that way. It's in your genes, I reckon," he said.
During his time with the brigade, he has responded to a wide range of incidents.
While the whole 48 years have been significant, one of his biggest achievements was being part of the group which fundraised for a rescue vehicle in the late 1970s in response to the constant call-outs to road accidents. This was very rare for a fire brigade at the time.
He has responded to many large fires in Ballarat, including both times the George Hotel burnt down, two large fires at the railway station as well as many other serious fires in the central business district. He was also a volunteer on Ash Wednesday in 1983 and Black Saturday in 2009.
As it was classified as an 'urban fire brigade', Ballarat did not have its own tanker for many decades. After years of petitioning, the brigade finally received its own tanker after fire tore through Creswick in 1977. The tanker arrived just before Ash Wednesday.
Mr Harris recalls this time as being "so frustrating", with Ballarat blanketed by smoke as nearby Creswick burned, but the brigade unable to assist as they did not have a tanker.
"Getting a tanker was, to us, such a big thing because it enabled us to respond to those bigger fires. Now we couldn't exist without a tanker," he said.
Mr Harris was the first member of his family to join the brigade, though many of his family members followed - including his daughter, Tarryn.
Ms Harris joined when the brigade's junior program was established 10 years ago. While the program is for youth aged between 11 and 16, she decided to join despite it almost being her 16th birthday.
At that time her uncle was captain and other family members were heavily involved with the brigade. For her, the fire brigade was, and still is, a second home.
Training with the juniors and then the seniors, she worked her way up the ranks and has been fourth Lieutenant for two years.
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While women have historically been a part of the brigade through roles such as secretary, Ms Harris was the first woman in more than 160 years to be an operational officer.
Her role in the brigade keeps her busy. During the summer bushfires, she was tasked with coordinating strike teams, brigade communications and work crews at the station.
In addition to attending fires, she logs reports after an incident and is also responsible for managing applications to the brigade, running introductory sessions, as well as being the junior leader.
I definitely encourage anyone, whether they're male or female or from whatever background, to get involved with the fire brigade because it gives you a sense of community and makes you feel like you belong to something greaterTarryn Harris
"I love volunteering with this brigade. I love giving back to the community. I enjoy everything we do - from getting cats out of trees to even going to those bad situations like car accidents or significant fires, because as a brigade we all pull in and support each other," she said.
"I definitely encourage anyone, whether they're male or female or from whatever background, to get involved with the fire brigade because it gives you a sense of community and makes you feel like you belong to something greater."
Current brigade captain Mark Cartledge has been a volunteer with the brigade for 28 years and is one of the longest serving operational officers.
He has been an operational officer for 22 years. Starting out as third lieutenant, he spent several years in both the third and first lieutenant roles before taking on the role of brigade captain in 2014. He has been in the role ever since.
After growing up in the area, he has vivid memories of the Creswick fire, Ash Wednesday and the Maryborough fire. Since he made the decision to join the CFA, he has never looked back.
While he enjoys being able to help people, he has also made many good friends through the CFA.
"Walking away when you have helped someone on the worst day of their life, or possibly the worst day of their life, is a good feeling," he said.
One of his biggest highlights since joining the brigade was being elected by other members as an officer.
"Knowing I had the support of the other brigade members to become an officer was a huge achievement in my eyes," he said.
"Then continuing that and being elected as captain during three elections, so knowing the brigade supports me, so I must be doing a pretty good job, was too."
There is a connection with brigade members. We're all willing to help each other. If we have a terrible job, then we all lean on each other and support each other through that.Captain Mark Cartledge
While sometimes it is difficult to juggle the almost 40 hours of volunteer work each week on top of his day job and he has been involved with the response to some traumatic incidents, he keeps walking through the fire station door.
It's always a good feeling when the brigade receives new equipment and trucks, and he fondly remembers the day when he opened not only the top engine bays at Ballarat station, but also the Mt Helen Fire Station.
But what he is most proud of during his time as captain is how the brigade managed to recognise such a dark period in its history and organise the permanent installation of a loud fence.
To him, the station is also a home away from home, where members support each other through the good times and the bad.
"There is a connection with brigade members. We're all willing to help each other. If we have a terrible job, then we all lean on each other and support each other through that.
"There is a fellowship within the brigade, a mateship. And it just continues right through the organisation to other people you meet at incidents. You form that friendship basically straight away and that continues on the next job and the next job, so it's that connection you make within the brigade and the CFA as a whole.
"I think that's why I keep coming back - I do love it down here. Apart from the fires and the incidents and all the crappy jobs we get, it's the heritage here, the atmosphere, the culture - it's absolutely awesome. It's enjoyable. It's a home away from home."
To find out more about being a CFA volunteer, visit the CFA website.
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