Peter Jensen found his destiny as a firefighter after graduating from the innovative Indigenous Fire and Rescue Employment Strategy (IFARES) program, a collaboration between Fire and Rescue NSW and TAFE NSW.
The Campbelltown firefighter, who is now a mentor with TAFE NSW, jokes he is a “jack of all trades and master of none” but it’s more accurate to say the 40-year-old Tjungundji man just took a while to find his calling.
Peter’s family is from Horn Island in the Torres Strait and Mapoon in far north Queensland, and he grew up on Jirrbal country in the Atherton Tablelands, where he began picking mangoes and tobacco at 15.
“That was some of the only work available for Indigenous people at the time,” he said.
Peter was spotted on the sportsfield and went on to play NRL professionally for the Canberra Raiders while undertaking a mechanical apprenticeship.
He played NRL in France, managed timber plantations in Tumbarumba, and worked as a heavy diesel mechanic in Newcastle before finding work as an Aboriginal education assistant at Reiby Juvenile Justice Centre.
But it wasn’t until he started a Diploma of Community Services with TAFE NSW Kingswood that he really began to realise his own potential.
“That’s when I started to find my passion for work and what I was doing began to resonate with me deeply, rather than it just being a job,” Peter said.
“I come from a disadvantaged background and a small community, and I thought I was too stupid to study – I had a lot of doubt and lacked self-confidence The Diploma made me realise my needs were just more complex and TAFE NSW provided incredible support. The Diploma helped me to put the jigsaw pieces together and learn about myself and what makes a functioning, thriving human being.”
Peter went on to complete a Diploma of Counselling at TAFE NSW Bankstown and became a case work manager with the Department of Family and Community Services.
After working in community services for 12 years, Peter was inspired by a chance meeting with an Aboriginal man who was a firefighter. He said he’d never contemplated it as a career as he had no role models to look up to.
After several failed attempts to pass the NSW Government aptitude test, Peter joined the Indigenous Fire and Rescue Employment Strategy (IFARES) program – and something just clicked.
The program is a collaboration between Fire and Rescue NSW and TAFE NSW to equip Aboriginal men and women with a Certificate III in Fitness and the skills to become a firefighter. Since it began in 2014, there has been 206 graduates with a 98 per cent completion rate and more than 60 per cent of participants have secured employment with Fire and Rescue NSW.
“The IFARES program absolutely sets people up for success,” Peter said.
“I had all the skills but I needed some extra support in those early stages. The practical knowledge and guidance I received from TAFE NSW mentors enabled me to get my foot in the door.”
In 2015, Peter was awarded a TAFE NSW Gili Award for student achievement as well as being honoured with the Silver Axe – the highest Fire and Rescue NSW award for academic and physical achievement.
In addition to his firefighting duties, Peter now works part-time at TAFE NSW teaching Aboriginal arts and culture as well as being a mentor to other IFARES participants, sharing his extraordinary life experience.
“Having the opportunity to be a mentor with TAFE NSW to re-engage Aboriginal people and help them to follow their dreams is something I feel very privileged to be part of.”
After such a varied work life, Peter says he has found real purpose in his role as a firefighter and loves the combination of community service and camaraderie.
“It’s amazing to be part of the community and what resonates with me the most is being part of a team where we all rely on each other. It’s almost like playing footy again – you have to put the team first,” he said.
“Some people are intimidated by this work, but I like working under pressure, I like challenges, I like stepping up when it’s time to be counted. I feel great pride in being able to help people on their worst day.”
Explore hundreds of courses at TAFE NSW and pursue your passion with life-changing training. For more information visit www.tafensw.edu.au or phone 131 601. To find out more about IFARES, visit www.fire.nsw.gov.au.
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