Dirk Ziekenheiner – A Fairdinkum Firey

While most of us go about our day job relatively stress-free, Senior Firefighter Dirk Ziekenheiner digs deep daily to help others in oftentimes life-threatening situations. Instead of finding a serious chap, we were delighted to spend an afternoon with a reflective, jovial champion that left us feeling like there’s always some good to be found in the world.

By Joanne Leila Smith

While many young kids dream of growing up to drive the big red truck, the reality of getting into the fire brigade is not easy. Many firefighters will tell you that it’s not uncommon for an average applicant being consigned to a five-year wait list, with some firefighters needing to apply multiple times, regardless of suitability, to get the green light.

For Senior Firefighter and Relieving Rescue Instructor, Dirk Ziekenheiner, 42, the wait was particularly long, but he has no regrets. Kick-starting his career in the Australian Army in 1994, after two years of serving as a Private in Enogra Queensland, Ziekenheiner decided it was time for a change.

“I was accepted by Fire & Rescue NSW in 1996, so I left the Army, came back to NSW and waited. And waited. So I called them up and they said there was a mix up and I wasn’t in. I was in shock. I realise now that this is very common. I waited and reapplied. Five years later, I was accepted! I finally get in, and get another phone call to say I’m not in again. Due to a criminal record! I didn’t have a criminal record. I rang up the NSW Police, they were having a go, saying, ‘you’re that bloke! If you ever want to have alias names, change your date of birth’. I asked them what they meant, and they mentioned the names Ari and Ben. They thought I had tried to commit fraud. I said ‘No. I’m a triplet!’ I wasn’t giving up. I got in eventually. I know other guys who’ve applied eight times. Getting into the army was easy but the training is hard. In the Fireys, it’s hard to get in, but the training is much easier. In fact, when anyone has a whinge about training, I just remember the Army and say, you’ve got nothin’ to whinge about,” says Ziekenheiner.

Fire & Rescue NSW is the largest rescue service in NSW and is involved in nearly 12,000 rescue incidents each year. With over 6,800 firefighters, both fulltime and on-call, including Urban Search and Rescue specialists, firefighters do so much more than respond to bush or house fire calls.

FRNSW responds to earthquakes, train derailments, motor vehicle and plane crashes, building collapse and complex rescues such as confined spaces, high rise, caving, cliff and canyon rescues, swift water (floods) alpine, fire and hazardous materials containment.

After serving eight years at Crows Nest and one year at Gladesville, Ziekenheiner expanded his capabilities and went on to became a Search and Rescue Instructor for USAR, a specialist rescue arm of FRNSW that provides capability to locate, provide medical assistance to and remove victims who have been trapped or affected by a structural collapse.

“USAR is a dedicated force for heavy and remote situations that can respond anywhere in Australia or overseas. The important thing to note about USAR is that we are self-sufficient. Which means that we don’t make an impact on any country that’s been suffering. There’s a lot of countries whose agencies will land, but then need petrol, water, food, tents etc. and become a potential burden to the locals. But the Aussie team will turn up with forty tonnes or more of rescue, search and recovery equipment that we need to do the job plus supply for up to 84 personnel and search dogs,” says Ziekenheiner.

Every three years, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs employs its advisory arm, The International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG) to grade rescue teams from around the world according to a stringent classification system, called, IEC (INSARAG External Classification). Under this system, Australia is one of 21 global rescue teams that have successfully received certification, and was graded as a ‘heavy self-sufficient team’. Every year, up to ninety members from NSW and Qld’s USAR rotate every three months on special assignments. USAR is the national response team for the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade and AusAid for overseas deployment in times of disaster.

Ziekenheiner has been deployed to a number of search and rescue operations throughout his career, including the Vanuatu cyclone Pam in 2015, The Queensland floods of 2010/11, and the devastating magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in early March, 2011.

Japan earthquake

A make-shift tsunami safe haven on the roof of the hospital, Japan, 2011. Image courtesy of FRNSW.

According to Live Science and Earth magazine, the earthquake covered a staggering 500km fault zone off the northeast coast of Japan, its epicentre was 130 kilometers off Sendai, Honshu. The thrusting moved Honshu about 2.4 meters eastward, and the waves on the Pacific Ocean floor set off a tsunami wave travelling at 700km per hour. To give context, swift water is classified as fast moving water about 15km per hour which will carry away a full-grown man. Waves up to 38m high pounded Honshu’s coastline, destroying everything in its wake and flooded areas up to 10km inland. Casualties from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan is estimated at 30,000. More than 125,000 buildings were damaged and property loss was estimated to be more than AUD417billion in total. Last year, radioactive water was leaking from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which suffered a level 7 nuclear meltdown after the tsunami.

According to Japan’s Reconstruction Agency, in 2015, nearly 230,000 people who lost their homes are still living in temporary housing.

For Ziekenheiner, the experience going to Japan was both a cerebral and surreal experience.

“I‘ve learnt a lot about compassion in my work. It has taught me that in Australia, we don’t have the kind of major disasters that others get. In Japan, we saw boats, houses, large marine animals washed many kms into the hills and fishing nets washed in from the sea had humans, buildings, animals and vehicles caught in the net. To be honest with you, it’s almost like a dream to a point. I’m seeing it, but I’m not really processing it. I’m just trying to be professional and be there for those who need help. Yes, I’m affected by the devastation, but I tend to compartmentalise it so I can get just on with the job,” says Ziekenheiner.

With temperatures at minus 20 degrees Celsius, Ziekenheiner’s team had to perform search and rescue duties in five metres of snow, experiencing hundreds of aftershocks, three Tsunami warnings and the Fukoshima Nuclear Reactor leaking radiation during his posting. While the dangers were imminent, Ziekenheiner says the focus was just on getting through the tasks each day.

Japan earthquake

Japan’s earthquake was the country’s largest recorded quake and the fourth-largest in the world since 1935. Image courtesy of FRNSW.

“When I was in Vanuatu, after the initial search for victims, reconnaissance work, we clear streets, engage our builders, engineers, plumbers to help rebuild the community – particularly so schools and hospitals can get back in action. The thing is, I really enjoy helping people. That’s what Fireys do. While everyone else is running away, we run in, and I love that. It’s very rewarding if someone after a hairy situation says thanks for saving me from hanging off a cliff, or helping out in a car accident, it’s a good feeling. If I can save someone, it makes me feel good,” says Ziekenheiner.

According to Ziekenheiner, the instinct to run towards danger is not something that comes naturally, it’s down to training – and lots of it.

“The common mistake is people panic and their brain shuts down. It’s fight or flight – there’s no decision making going on. So things like Immediate Action Drills, which is done in the Army, create a response called instinctive obedience, so when a real situation occurs, you just go through motions automatically, regardless of the stressful situation. We were conducting physical training at the station just the other day, and an elderly lady had a nasty head injury, so we went from training to administering first aid in a matter of seconds. FRNSW firefighters are among the best in the world. It’s important to work together as a team. If you look at special forces type people, they just get in, get the job done. There’s no drama. We’re a motivated bunch,” says Ziekenheiner.

While an almost clinical pragmaticism is an absolute necessity for firefighters to be able to perform under extreme duress, Ziekenheiner is honest about some of the darker realities of his profession. With Post Traumatic Stress Disorder a major problem for colleagues in his profession, the importance of sharing traumatic experiences and talking through them with the team goes a long way to help debrief and decompress after a difficult call out.

Earlier this month, the firefighter’s union gathered in Melbourne to combat PTSD, who argue that professional firefighters sometimes find it difficult to admit they may be suffering from PTSD. With over 1,200 road fatalities nationwide in 2015 alone, most firefighters would agree that call-outs to car crashes with fatalities are particularly harrowing experiences.

Ziekenheiner shares a particularly difficult call-out that had a lasting impact on him in 2012.

“I was called out to western Sydney where a massive trailer full of timber and a shipping container had overturned and crushed a car. The driver was in there and we could see a baby seat so we thought a kid was involved. It was very messy and I don’t think I was fully prepared for it. After cutting through the car, we realised that the driver was in a position which indicated that he must have seen what was about to happen and he couldn’t get out in time. I just thought, this poor bloke, he’s obviously a dad with a young kid who’s just lost a father. I felt connected with the guy as I had my own kids… it made me very emotional. When I was driving home, I had to pull over. I burst into tears. I was just a blubbering mess. For me, it’s dead kids in car crashes. That’s what gets me. The worst one was when a lady’s face fell off onto my arm at a prang. It was a big hit in 1996 – early in my career. Back then, the debrief was a bit different, we’d have a beer and chat after work, and it helps, but we get triggers, for PTSD it’s usually if you get lots of incidents close together it can compound in your mind. I’ve been very fortunate that major tragic incidents have been spaced out, so I’m coping fine,” says Ziekenheiner.

According to Ziekenheiner, his experiences have taught him that most people think being in a car means they are safe – and his view is that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

“Most people think being inside a car means they’re protected but the floor and roof is only 2mm of steel… Cars are not safe and potentially very deadly. I started teaching my kids defensive driving since they were old enough to talk! I’m always pointing out bad drivers to my kids, ‘see that guy on the phone kids? Idiot! I’m always on the lookout for idiots on the road,” says Ziekenheiner.

While Ziekenheiner is prepared for the worst when he’s on duty, he does admit that being a firefighter means that in some ways, they are never off duty. He recalls a difficult situation where he was on a return flight from a family holiday in Fiji where he had to switch from leisure into work mode.

“I had a strong bad feeling, as soon I sat down on the plane. There was a kid vomiting behind me, and the smell on the plane set off a chain reaction, and two other kids vomited… my wife and kids were next to me but something wasn’t right. Just as I was falling asleep, a woman started screaming right next to me across the aisle; a senior lady was dead, she had one eye shut one eye open looking at me. Everyone panicked because of the lady screaming and moved to the front of the plane. It was mayhem. My wife Emma, nudged me, like ‘bloody do something!’ I checked her pulse. Nothing. Checked the airways. Nothing. So I got straight into CPR. One bloke was yelling from the other side of the plane, ‘I’m a plumber, let me through, I’m a plumber, I’m a plumber! And I’m like, plumber? The toilet’s not blocked mate! These are the weird reactions you get when people panic… Anyway, I’m performing CPR, she was totally dead, and the success rate of being brought back is very low but three minutes later, she came to…I was so shocked I nearly punched her! Thankfully I didn’t. That was the first time I’ve had that happen so it was just a wow moment. I checked her pulse, rapid. All good. As it usually happens, when everything is okay, then a doctor shows up and she took over from there…” says Ziekenheiner.

Dirk Ziekenheiner, Joanne Leila Smith

Fire and Rescue NSW firefighters on duty at East Gosford Fire Station, December 2016.

What’s interesting about Ziekenheiner’s outlook on being put in dangerous situations is that his first concern in not his own skin, but the impact and safety of others.  There is something deeply enduring, and moving about his position, as if being confronted by others’ mortality gives him a sense of his own fragility – which is a touching juxtaposition considering the strong physical persona that such a role demands. When asked about how he feels about this, Ziekenheiner, true to form, is simply candid.

“When you want to help someone and it doesn’t go right, that can be tough. I don’t know if it affects me, but, I try to just be the same person that I always am, regardless of the situation,” says Ziekenheiner.

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