Passion continues to burn bright after 50 years of service

1st deputy group officer of the Cardinia Group and 3rd Lieutenant of the Pakenham Upper Fire Brigade Steve Hicks. 411733 Picture: GARY SISSONS

By Matthew Sims

At 16 years of age, Narre Warren North local Steve Hicks was roaming around his hometown with some friends, not aware that an opportunity which would change the course of his life.

The captain at the Narre Warren North CFA brigade at the time noticed the group of mates and pulled over to ask them if they wanted to start volunteering for the brigade.

Mr Hicks said he joined the brigade in 1974 with some of his friends.

“Three of us stayed on for a while,“ he said.

Mr Hicks was among the recipients of the Australian Fire Service Medal in this year’s King’s Birthday honours.

Mr Hicks acted as the Narre Warren North captain from 1981 to 1987 and the captain at the Pakenham Upper brigade from 1993 to 2001.

He has also served as the deputy group officer in the Pakenham and Cardinia groups and is currently the 1st deputy group officer of the Cardinia Group and 3rd Lieutenant of the Pakenham Upper Fire Brigade.

Out of his 50 years volunteering with the CFA, he has been a captain or lieutenant for 35 years and a deputy group officer for 24 years.

Mr Hicks has also served on the District 8 District Planning Committee Operations sub-committee for 21 years, with a chief officer’s accreditation for a level 3 operations officer and is also an endorsed level 2 incident controller.

His work has focused on increasing the level of competency and performance of volunteers at all levels, with a key focus on wildfire behaviour, crew leaders, and Strike Team leaders.

Mr Hicks said he has loved his work volunteering both in fighting fires and improving the overall performance of local brigades.

“You just do what you need to do,“ he said.

Mr Hicks said technological changes and other shifts in the CFA meant the CFA of today was “hugely different“ than the one he joined 50 years ago.

“Fires have got bigger as there’s a lot more building materials than there used to be,“ he said.

“When I started, it was all about going out and having fun.

“It gave us a bit of an outlet.“

Mr Hicks said former Narre Warren North captain Ivan Smith was one of his key mentors during the first few years with CFA.

“He took me under his wing a bit,“ he said.

“I took over from him.

“I owe a lot of what I know to him.“

Mr Hicks said he also owed a lot of his training techniques to former Gembrook captain and fellow AFSM recipient Brian Petrie.

He said he has enjoyed mentoring others and shaping new volunteers.

“I’m just trying to pass on things I’ve learnt to others,“ Mr Hicks said.

“I do get so much enjoyment out of it.“

He was also the captain of the Narre Warren North brigade during the Ash Wednesday bushfires on Wednesday 16 February 1983.

His wife Lisa, who was fourth lieutenant at the time, was in one of the first trucks to head out to fight the Belgrave South fire.

Mr Hicks had just given blood at the Narre Warren North Hall, but when he emerged, he knew there was a serious disaster on the way.

“I saw the smoke in the distance,“ he said.

“I spent the next three or four days out.

“It was pretty well full-time.“

In 2009, Mr Hicks played a leadership role in the planning and response to the Bunyip State Park Fire.

When the fire started, he was part of a small group of CFA firefighters who were shadowing the fire, planning and developing tactics for the predicted breakout into private land.

At the height of the fire, there were 72 CFA appliances, 42 DSE appliances, six Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) appliances and 10 aircraft.

The fire was eventually contained on 4 March 2009, having burnt about 26,200 hectares in the Bunyip area, with 31 houses destroyed and tragically 173 lives lost during the entire event.

Mr Hicks said the CFA had learned so much from the two fires.

“There have been many changes to vehicles and equipment and the level of training we do now,“ he said.

“The organisation is completely different to how it was.

“If you go back to Ash Wednesday, we were really bushfire brigades, and it was up to individual brigades to do what they thought right.“

Mr Hicks also fought in the 2020 summer fires, 2019 fires in Bunyip State Park, 2002-3 and 2006-7 alpine fires and 2001 Sydney Christmas fire.

Just recently in 2023, he attended the Queensland fires as part of the Incident Management Team.

Three out of their four children have volunteered with the CFA, with his daughter Kelly Ketteringham working as a police officer and volunteering at Drouin West Fire Brigade, his son Michael working as a sparky and volunteering with the Cockatoo CFA brigade and his other son Phillip working for FRV Pakenham, while his other daughter Casey is a nurse.

“It’s something that grows on you,“ he said.

“They get a lot out of it.“

Mr Hicks said he had made a number of strong friendships over his time with the CFA.

“You make a lot of friends,“ he said.

“You build up lifelong relationships and friendships.“

Following the 2009 fires, a detailed discussion within the Cardinia Group led by Mr Hicks, identified further training was required for future leaders to be ready to step into higher roles.

As a result, the Future Leaders Program was established.

Mr Hicks said he was excited to see new faces join local brigades and find their own strengths.

“It’s nice to see young people join up,“ he said.

“You see kids come here with very little confidence and you just see their knowledge grow.

“You can see them develop and turn into real mature and sensible adults.“

Mr Hicks said it was a “real honour“ to be named in the same breath as other local AFSM recipients.

“It’s nice to be honoured for something you get so much enjoyment out of,“ he said.