Leslie Carr at the 266 station on Tuesday evening. Photo: Christopher Tan.

“Helping the community. You know when your pager went off it means someone needs you. It could be a cat stuck up in a tree to a house being on fire,” Cootamundra 266 Fire and Rescue Captain Leslie Carr said when asked what keeps him going more than 40 years later, since joining his local brigade.

On Monday, NSW Fire and Rescue announced that Les was a recipient of the Australian Fire Services Medal as part of the Queen’s Birthday Honours List.

The Australian Fire Service Medal is awarded for distinguished service and is the highest honour an Australian firefighter can receive.

Les is also the first to be awarded in the long history of the Cootamundra Fire Brigade which began around 1892.

Cootamundra Fire Brigade came under the auspices of the Board of Fire Commissioners of NSW (FRNSW) in 1910 and occupied a station in Cooper Street until 1914, then moved to the current station in Adam Street.

Born and bred in Cootamundra since 1958, Les Carr has always called Coota home and had never looked back once with a passion to serve his community, helping in anyway he can.

Going to a local school in town as well as playing all codes of sport especially cricket growing up, Captain Carr was quick to put his hand up and volunteer at his local RFS brigade.

Les was 15 when he lost his Dad Merv and at 19 the same year he joined the RFS, he also lost his Mum Phyllis, which Mr Carr said was followed by a tough number of years.

Having four older sisters and a younger brother was important growing up as they always looked out for each other.

Later on in his twenties Les went on to join the FNR team in Cootamundra, whilst still being part of RFS.

In January 1990 Les was appointed deputy captain of FNR NSW 266 Coota and then captain in August 2003.

He only resigned from the RFS to concentrate on being captain of FNR NSW 266.

RFS Cootamundra Captain Marc Bikerdike first joined the Fire Brigade systems 27 years ago and has known Les since then.

“Les was already involved in RFS when I joined almost three decades ago. Hearing him achieve the highest honour an Australian firefighter can receive, I just thought that this could not have gone to a nicer bloke, Captain Bikerdike said.

“I am just really happy for him.”

During Captain Carr’s junior days he recalled many eye-opening jobs including house fires and a number of intense motor vehicle accidents.

“Although they were all quite confronting, you were always looked after by the seniors in the brigade,” he said.

“Training has changed drastically since I first joined. In those days you had to stick alongside a senior member and whatever they did, you would also do, as their shadow. Nowadays you must go away for days to training even before you can get on a truck.

“The trucks too have all changed, as well as the equipment. It has all improved overtime.”

During the early years of Les’ firefighting career, his senior comrades and himself would go into burning houses with minimal equipment and this included the absence of breathing apparatus.

Despite four decades of service to FNR NSW and counting, Captain Carr said memories of past jobs are still engrained in him today.

Captain Carr working a hose. Photo: Supplied.

“The grandstand at the Showground was a big job. I was a junior around the 1980s,” he said.

“I was in-charge of the big silo fires too in January 2007 and I think that was probably one of the biggest jobs I’ve been tasked on.

“We were turned out for it and went straight there to react to it. We were called on a Friday for the job and didn’t leave it till exactly the following Friday.”

More recently Captain Carr was involved in the XPT train fire last year as well as the 2019/20 Black Summer Bushfires protecting homes.

Captain Carr receiving an Appreciation Certificate for the 2019/20 bushfires from Duty Commander Jason Murphy. Photo: Supplied.

Since the good news broke on Monday about Les being a recipient of the AFS Medal, Fire and Rescue NSW Commissioner Paul Baxter was one of the first to congratulate the Cootamundra 266 Captain.

“Over the past four decades, Captain Carr has played an integral part in protecting both local community and surrounding areas,” Commissioner Baxter said.

“He has fostered strong inter-agency relationships and demonstrated his strong emergency management skills at various significant incidents.”

Commissioner Baxter added that Captain Carr was one of the first Captains to initiate the FRNSW Peer Partners program.

“To ensure the crew were looking after each other and their loved ones, Captain Carr provided firefighters with the tools to help identify potential mental health issues and how to deal with them,” he said.

“He is committed to protecting both the mental wellbeing and physical safety at all times.”

Captain Carr and the 266 crew. Photo: Supplied.

Yass Fire Station Deputy Captain Mathew Carroll added to the pile of praise for Les and said the Cootamundra captain was more than deserving of his award.

“It’s a phenomenal achievement. The AFSM is the pinnacle of awards for serving firefighters. You don’t get one just by serving a few years,” Deputy Captain Carroll said.

“The history of being a retained firefighter under both NSW Fire Brigade and the organisation which is now known as FNR NSW, to do 40 years that’s a long time.

“This is also a lot of interrupted night’s sleep, a lot of missed family events and interrupted family dinners. To put all that into perspective, it really is a credit for his longevity in serving his local community in Cootamundra.”

When asked about his reaction upon learning the news, Les said the award was not about him, but about his family.

Sarah and Chris with Les Carr. Photo: Supplied.

“They [family] don’t know when I will be getting back or what I am getting involved with once that pager goes off,” Captain Carr said.

“Some nights I get home just in time to have a shower and then get to work [his day job].

“They [family] deserve the award more than me, for what they put up with and the sacrifices they make. You sit down to eat a meal and then you are gone. You come back and put it through the microwave and they are all already tucked in bed.”

Les and Chris Carr with kids from Cootamundra. Photo: Supplied.

When asked about who he would like to specially mention and thank for the past four decades, Captain Carr said it was his wife Brenda.

“I probably should have been divorced 10 times over by now,” he joked.

“What she puts up with at three o’clock in the morning is phenomenal over the years. She’ll have the lights on while I get changed, it’s just what they do. Without that kind of support, you wouldn’t do it.”

Sarah, Chris, Michael, Kirstyn, Noah, Les, Brenda and Isabella Carr. Photo: Photography by Bec Herring.

Getting involved with firefighting at a young age was something Les always wanted to do and is today run in the Carr family.

The elder son of two Christopher Carr, has been involved with Coota 266 for 20 years, starting as a junior and is today the station’s Deputy Captain.

Les is hopeful Chris will “take the boots off him” when time is up.

Younger son Michael is today a full-time firefighter working for the Air Force and travels around the world.

Retained Firefighter Matthew Bugden is one of the latest edition to the 266 FNR team having joined in August 2020, and he recently completed his nine-days phase training at the end of April.

Being a junior himself at 266, Mr Bugden said he is fortunate to be under the wing of Captain Carr, who has a wealth of experience and knowledge to impart to him.

“He has so much generosity and patience with his time with welcoming new members,” Matthew said.

“Furthermore, the knowledge he is able to share as team leader is inspiring especially for young recruits like myself. We all have so much to learn from Captain Carr.”

Outside of firefighting, Les is a wall floor tiler, concreter, brick layer and water-proofer and has been in this line of industry for the past 48 years.

Les beside his work ute earlier this week. Photo: Christopher Tan.

“It’s a very self-rewarding job knowing that you have helped somebody,” he said.

Despite being 63 years of age, there seems to be no slowing down for Mr Carr as he carries both his pager and personal flip phone around with him all the time, which seems to go off a lot.

“Yeah I’ve got a flip phone, it’s the only one I can drive. Technology is certainly not my best suit,” he joked.

To say Les is a humble man would be an understatement.

Many that know Les also know that although he is a man that leads from the front, he is not a man that would put himself in the spotlight.

It is incredibly beautiful to see this past week, that he is earning the recognition he deserves.

From all of us here at The Times, congratulations Captain Carr and we hope there is still many good years in you left at the 266 station.

Captain Carr will be presented with his AFSM at a ceremony later in the year and was first nominated through an email notification in April this year.

Christopher Tan