By Tyler Wright and Shelby Brooks
Paul Yandle speaks about the Emerald Fire Brigade with such eloquence and pride that it’s not surprising he held the role of captain for more than two decades.
His booming voice could command anyone to gear into action and serve their community.
Many volunteers and members of the brigade have only ever been led by the veteran firefighter who has devoted so much of his life to caring for and helping his community.
But after 22 years in service as captain, last week Mr Yandle stepped down from the role to the warm reception of the brigade’s volunteers and the wider community.
An outpouring of appreciation saturated social media as locals took in the news – many thanking Paul for his “unwavering care and support” and “strong leadership” throughout the 35 years he volunteered for the CFA.
“I was a bit emotional with all those messages on the Facebook post. It’s a bit overwhelming,“ Mr Yandle said.
“I didn’t realise I was making as much impact on people’s lives as some of those messages would indicate.“
Mr Yandle’s journey with volunteer firefighting began as soon as he turned 16.
He wanted to play his part in helping the community.
“Dad was an ambulance officer for about 40 years and he was in the CFA as a volunteer firefighter as well, it was something I grew up with as a child,” Mr Yandle said.
“The CFA is one of those things, you very quickly get to know a lot of people and make new relationships and friendships.”
In 1987, two years after he began volunteering, Mr Yandle became an apparatus officer; looking after equipment and maintenance.
He went on to hold various other lieutenant positions for more than a decade before being elected as captain in 2000.
It’s not just the big jobs- the 1997 Dandenong fires and Black Saturday fires- that leave a lasting impact on Mr Yandle as he reflects on his time with the CFA.
The jobs he can’t forget are the local incidents and tragedies he bore witness to.
“Before Black Saturday in 2006, there were bushfires…and we protected a house there in Kinglake when the fire came through. The handshake and the hug from the resident there – that’s what it’s all about,” Mr Yandle said.
“They were just unbelievably ecstatic with the support from the brigade, and a few weeks later they named their brand new baby Emerald after our brigade.
“Those sort of things stand out to me more than any awards or certificates. It’s the interaction with the public and being able to help someone in what’s probably the worst day of their lives. It’s very satisfying.“
Alongside these rewarding moments has come traumatic experiences Mr Yandle said can stick with a volunteer for a long time.
“We could be sitting at home having dinner with the family or watching a movie and the pager goes off, and three or four minutes later, you’re presented with something that can be traumatic and life changing,“ he said.
“I’ve had times where you’re holding hands with someone who’s trapped in the car. I remember one young girl and I kept reassuring her as she’s just squeezing my hand that tight that my knuckles are going white. Later on, they came back and said thank you for that.
“There’s always a positive that you can find out of a job and that’s one thing that’s really helped me get through all the traumatic jobs we go to.”
Mr Yandle said his involvement with the Emerald Fire Brigade would not have been possible without his wife Jody, who also has a history of volunteer firefighting and is affectionately referred to as the brigade’s First Lady.
“We both used to leave the dinner table and run out to fire calls,“ he said.
“But the other work on top of that with nights on the computer, writing letters or emails … you just can’t do that role, particularly for that amount of time, without that support.“
Not being the first on call in times of emergency in Emerald could take Mr Yandle a bit of getting used to.
“It’s a fairly decent sort of change to your life, you put so much time and energy into the brigade so it will be a bit of an adjustment not being in that role,“ he said.
But his strong connection with the township and volunteering won’t be changing despite his retirement.
“You don’t do this for 22 years to get a pat on the back. It’s just nice to have been able to mentor all these people and be a part of the community,“ he said.
“Emerald is such a strong community, it has over 50 community groups, just in Emerald. And it’s all the volunteers that make it tick. The way all the community groups work together in Emerald has always been fantastic.
“We’re a very, very lucky community and just to be able to play a small part in that this is very satisfying.“
Mr Yandle has handed over his captain’s badge to long serving volunteer Klaus Brodeck, who said he was ready to take on the new challenge after starting at the brigade in 2011.
“I’ve been a fairly committed member doing an average of over 50 calls per year since I’ve started,“ Mr Brodeck said.
“Taking on board my leadership, managerial skills from my everyday work life and bringing that into the CFA has also helped.”
The Emerald Fire Brigade’s new management team includes 1st Lieutenant Kelly Harris, 2nd Lieutenant Ryan Lewis, 3rd Lieutenant Chris May, 4th Lieutenant Mick Hamilton and communications officer Mitch Fraser.
The biennial election was held in April and those appointed took office on 1 May.