Former captain of Erica & District Fire Brigade, Flo Swan, has been awarded one of the CFA’s highest honours, a life membership medal recognising his four-decade contribution to the organisation and his community.
Nearly 20 years ago he started treatment for the cancer doctors say was caused by a combination of smoking and drinking beer.
Intensive radiotherapy improved the tumour, but when it returned, doctors advised him to have his larynx removed.
The surgeon replaced part of his oesophagus with a small piece of his bowel. Because it tightens in his throat, every three weeks he must have a procedure to expand his oesophagus back to a comfortable level.
A total laryngectomy has also meant Flo no longer has a voice and now communicates using a digital speech aid device, which he presses against the skin underneath his chin and its vibrations create sound.
He now breathes through a hole in the front of his neck, called a stoma, creating a significant safety concern for Flo as a firefighter. “Smoke will get in there [the stoma] because I know dust gets in when I’m working in the shed. So, I know I have to be very careful,” he said. “I just have to remember to stay away from the smoke.”
Flo’s partner of 21 years, Julie Tairua, reflects on how cancer has affected the two of them and their family. Between them, they have six children, Rebecca, Amanda, Kate, Ronnie, Donna and Tzar.
“It’s a long road,” Julie said, through tears. “It was pretty traumatic when we got the diagnosis. We drove home and we were laughing and being silly but it wasn’t funny, really.”
Julie describes one of the biggest challenges as “going from someone to talk to at home then not having it”.
For about four months after Flo’s operation, his throat was too sore to use the speech aid, so Julie quickly learned to lip-read. “I had no idea what he was trying to tell me, so it was notes, lots of writing. Yeah, it was pretty frustrating,” she said.
Funny, yet frustrating – Flo keeps a sense of humour about it. “It’s very hard to have an argument when you’re writing notes,” Flo said.
For Julie, it has not only been coming to terms with a quieter home, but she has had an uphill battle trying to manage Flo’s affairs because he cannot speak over the phone. “[Agencies] won’t talk to me because the account is in his name. It’s crazy. It’s just stupid,” she said. “That’s probably what broke me — the frustration of all that.”
Julie says her one regret is not taping a video of her partner before the operation to keep as a memento for their grandchildren. “People said he had a sexy voice because it was so husky,” Julie said. Like the actor Sam Elliott, she said. He is known for looking similar, too.
“That’s why she likes me so much,” Flo replied.
See Flo’s story on the ABC Gippsland >>
Despite the changes to how Flo operates as a CFA volunteer, he was voted by his brigade earlier this year to continue as captain.
Laurence ‘Flo’ Swan joined the CFA on February 25, 1980 when he registered as an active firefighter with the Erica & District Fire Brigade. His leadership potential was recognised almost instantly and within two years, he was elected as captain of the brigade. In April 1988, he joined the Tarnagulla Fire Brigade, 50 kilometres west of Bendigo, and served there until the brigade folded in 1993.
After a short break from the CFA, he rejoined Erica & District Fire Brigade in June 1997 where he was elected second lieutenant. He took another break between 2001 and 2002, and rejoined in March 2003. From June 2008 until July 10, 2022, Flo was the brigade’s captain, making him the brigade’s longest-serving captain.
In April 2022, Flo was presented with a 30- year CFA service medal at the brigade’s 75th celebrations.
Outside of his captaincy, Flo also held several positions during his operational tenure with the brigade. He was elected the Baw Baw Group’s sixth deputy group officer in September 2017 until July 2022.
Flo’s stoic nature around the brigade and on the fire ground — along with his calming, quick-thinking, fearless and decisive leadership style — has held the brigade and its community in good stead during times of adversity. As captain, his leadership style was always firm but respectful and his focus has always been on what’s best for the brigade and the broader community.
As a mark of respect, the Erica & District Fire Brigade has officially named its Tanker 1 ‘Flo’ which is written across both front doors. From now on, it will be known as Flo’s Truck around the brigade.
Flo is now fighting his third bout of throat cancer but continues to remain positive.
If you see Flo in the community, be sure to say g’day and congratulate him on his stellar performance and outstanding commitment to the brigade, and more generally our brilliant community.
Photos: Anne Simmons.
CFA District 9, CFA South East Region, DCO Trevor Owen – CFA South East Region, CFA (Country Fire Authority), ABC Gippsland, WIN News Gippsland, Latrobe Valley Express, Warragul Drouin Gazette, TRFM, GOLD 1242.