Katrina Cirillo : The Rocks Fire Station, Millers Point : Sydney, Australia
“My whole purpose of being here is to help people. Evacuate people, get people to safe place, and when they’ve lost something so major – their home, their clothes, they don’t have a car, they’ve got nothing but the shirt on their back – to be able to give them some support or comfort. That’s why I’m here: I want to save people’s lives; I want to protect their property; I want to do something for someone that can’t repay you. That’s what I want”
Katrina Cirillo works on the front line of one of the most dangerous and challenging jobs in existence. Where you can be jolted from any part of your day or night to a crescendoing siren indicating that it’s time to stop everything, suit up, focus, trust your training and get to the truck; your team, and potentially people’s lives, are relying on it. As a firefighter out of The Rocks (Sydney, Australia), Katrina and the committed team that surround her face the possibility of daily threats to their safety and understand that in order to do their job well, they need to lower their eyes and apply their skills at a moment’s notice to help protect the properties and lives; no excuses. It’s a serious job done by brave people with an inherent want to help those in the community, whatever the cost, and Katrina is no exception.
Born in Sydney, she was raised by the beach in Manly alongside older twin brothers. It wasn’t a textbook childhood as her mother made the decision early on to leave Kat’s father (who had a history of violence and drug abuse), to ensure her children were given the best chance of protection from such an environment. With this, alongside watching her mother work tirelessly to simply ensure her family didn’t go without, it’s easy to understand why Katrina holds such strong values around wanting to help others in any way that she can; to find a way to give back.
“Mum raised us primarily with my grandma and my aunty – they always say a community raises children and our situation was very much that. She’s a strong, independent woman. She worked two jobs to give us a future and give us everything we had; I admire her for that and draw strength from her. She was working as a cleaner in the hospitality and doing her own cleaning as well; so just working around the clock. (She had) no time for her; just totally provided for her children”
It seems a natural evolution for her to be drawn to roles working alongside and engaging with people as she entered the workforce, and she would embrace the opportunity to conduct bridge climb tours ascending The Sydney Harbour Bridge; sharing in some of the most positive moments in people’s lives from milestone birthdays to teary engagements. And love the job though she did, when the inner-voice in told her it was time to move on, she listened, and went to work under yet another iconic Australian brand, Qantas. Here she would find a position she genuinely loved; the interaction with people, the shifting faces and the endless personalities ensured her effortless approach to the daily regime.
“I loved every minute of it; every single minute. It was just not work to me. Yeah sure you’re passing out food and things like that, but to me it was just more of a social event than anything else. Making people feel comfortable. I loved the social interaction and the travel was just a bonus. Traveling with crew…they just pass the knowledge down from one crew member to the next, so you’ve got local guides that you’re traveling with. We were spoiled; we were spoiled with culture”
Unfortunately she would be rewarded for this dedication and love for the role by being unceremoniously shunted out of her job, leaving her no choice but to find other options. During the well publicised financial challenges of Qantas she, along with hundreds of her coworkers, was subject to the realities of the fiscal belt-tightening of the brand. And in her case, it was a huge blow that no well-wishing or positivity could easily overcome.
“I was devastated. I was hoping it was just a phase and we would come out of the other side, but we suffered massively. They cut our full time hours to one shift a month and I had to look for something else; it was terrible. I genuinely loved getting up and going to work every day; I was in my element. I never felt I had worked a day in my life and it was just taken from me”
Although the reality of this situation would rock her personally and financially, it also presented the opportunity for her to fulfil a calling she had received previously. The decision to join the frontline of the Fire & Rescue NSW was serendipitous, as years earlier on a trip to visit her uncle, a fire was looming ominously in the distance and threatened to destroy the house that Katrina and her family were sheltered in. In this tense time, she had witnessed first-hand the stress a situation like this can put people under and the welcome assistance a fire fighting team provides; in this instance, working tirelessly to prevent potential loss of property and life. It was an unforgettable experience that would plant an idea in her head that would only now be realised.
“The fire’s rolling down and he’s made the choice, he’s staying to protect his property. How do you leave a family member behind? You don’t; so we stayed. And the fire fighters knew that we were in this house, fought really hard, and put out the fire right near his back fence; it did not touch his property…did not touch his fence. And they potentially saved his property and all our lives. And I’ll never forget that, and I’m forever indebted to the Fire Brigade for that and I want to do that for somebody else”
She’s heading into her second year with Fire & Rescue NSW and her drive and passion to fulfil this calling is clear and resolute. It’s a difficult job that requires your all when involved, and unfortunately this reality led to a devastating back injury for Kat earlier in the year. For the last seven months it’s been a long and challenging road to recovery, but she was determined, and despite being told that her career was over and she may never make it back to a fire station, she was insistent on overcoming the odds to be back with her team. She then set out on a brutal training regime that saw her develop enviable strength and fitness, the net result of which got her back to where she wanted to be: on the front line, helping people. Now with that happily behind her, she ultimately wants to take this idea to the community by applying it outside of the existing agenda to help those living on the streets of Sydney.
“You walk around the city in this blistering cold and they’re on every street corner and it’s heartbreaking. For whatever reason they’re there, I don’t know, and I’ve had moments where I haven’t had a dollar to put petrol in my car to get to work so it can happen to any of us. And so I’d like to be able to do more for them”
With the various community programs run by the Fire Brigade, from educating school children on the importance of fire safety awareness to directly helping the homeless to understand what to do in the event of a fire, it seems a perfect match yet to be made for Katrina to realise this ambition within the institution she so loves; to somehow align the resources of Fire & Rescue NSW with her basic vision to help those less fortunate on the streets of Sydney. And although it may currently be a pipe-dream, you can rest assured that this big-hearted firey will eventually find a way to further involve herself by helping others in any way that she can.
Learn more about Fire & Rescue New South Wales here.