Lauren Brown walks into a shipping container with more than 30 kilos of weight on her body and the smoke starts to make it impossible to see.
She’s a nervous wreck. More nervous than any NRLW or representative game she’s ever played.
Within the darkness and heat that ranges between 500-600 degrees, she turns to her partner and they start to look for casualties.
Once found, she drags them to safety before re-entering that same container and extinguishing the flames with equipment she’s carried on her the entire time.
Time is also against her. She needs to complete the task before the clock winds down or she fails and risks not being able to do it again.
Brown’s life away from rugby league has changed a lot in the past 12 months, none more so than when she was accepted into the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services in December last year.
In between kicking field goals to win games for the Titans, Brown has started shift work on the Gold Coast as a firefighter after a gruelling two-year application of physical and cognitive testing came to an end in the best possible way.
“Being a firefighter was something I’ve wanted to do for a while, but it had more just been in the background of my life,” Brown tells NRL.com.
“I got more serious about it when I turned 19 but I knew I wouldn’t have had enough life experience, and they wouldn’t have considered me so I went to uni and pursued a few different sporting careers.
“The time felt right though a couple of years ago and when applications opened up in 2021, I just thought I’d give it a red-hot crack.
“It’s such a gruelling process to get through the application online. So many people apply and don’t get in their first go, sometimes it could take up to four attempts.
“There’s around 10,000 applicants for only a small amount of spots available and with all the physical testing required I felt there were a lot of women around me at the start but towards the end they didn't make the cut.”
The QFES has approximately 5,500 firefighters employed across Queensland with 19.9 percent made up of women according to an annual report in September, 2022.
Across Australia that number drops to just five percent overall with Queensland among the states that lead the way in employing more female firefighters.
Brown, one of the fittest competitors in the NRLW, found the physical testing to be far more difficult than any type of training for rugby league.
"There are so many hoops you have to jump through and I knew being a female it would naturally be a little bit harder for me because they expect the same standard regardless if you’re male or female," she said.
"You just have to hit the benchmark, which I really like. Physically you've got to knock over between 9.3-9.6 on the beep test, then they test verbal reasoning, mechanical reasoning and spacial reasoning.
"A lot of the steps are to weed out people, each stage was like elimination. If you didn’t reach the benchmark in any of them you were out.
"I trained for the physical tests because they were different muscles you were using to footy but it was hard.
"You’ve got guys who can just muscle their way through the movements easy but I’m never going to be that strong so I thought what techniques I can use for maximum efficiency. Footy just doesn’t compare, it was so different."
Brown did everything from wearing a 20-kilogram weight vest on to simulate wearing a uniform, PPE and breathing apparatus that you would usually wear as a firefighter.
She would hop on the stair climber just like at a gym for three minutes straight to fatigue the legs while one challenge had her holding a sledgehammer and hitting a certain spot to practice forceable entry.
Any type of slip-up during the testing would see her fail immediately.
"All on your own with someone watching you," she said.
"There were so many ways you could fail including a time limit – which I failed on my first attempt, but everyone was allowed two attempts at the physical test.
"And I passed the second time as I had the techniques down pat and knew how the test would run.
"I had to do things like lift an eight-metre ladder in the air, complete a 90-metre hose drag which was one of the hardest parts of the course, an 80-kilo dummy drag around some cones, plus loads more obstacles.
"It was challenging, but I got through it, all on a morning where I then went and played a semi-final in the BMD Premiership that afternoon."
Which is even more remarkable, because during all of Brown's work to get into the fire academy she was still committed to rugby league.
Brown's final exam came a day before Queensland's Origin match against the Sky Blues on the Sunshine Coast in November, 2021.
She drove down to Brisbane with permission from Maroons coach Tahnee Norris for an interview. A half an hour later on her way back to re-join camp she got the phone call she's always wanted.
Just over 24 hours later she was kicking a penalty goal to win an Origin game for the Maroons.
"The whole thing was nerve-wracking because it was all on me in that interview moment and that’s why I like team sport because you’ve got your mates around you," she said.
"You look to them and everything is just a bit better. But here it's on you for every step, if you stuff up you had no one else to blame."
After passing all examinations Brown was put on a waiting list to be posted to the Queensland Fire Academy and then a station in the future.
With no timeline or guarantee where or when she would start, Brown went about her business working for the Titans in a commercial capacity before jetting away to the World Cup for a maiden Test jersey with the Jillaroos.
Four days after returning from the UK she received a call. Brown was offered a spot at the Academy for further training.
The catch? A February-June sacrifice, meaning she had to choose between a potential career or a fourth State of Origin experience, which could jeopardise future representative honours.
"It was an extremely tough decision to make. I called 'Murph' (Titans coach Karyn Murphy) who was really good to talk to being a former police officer herself," Brown said.
"I gave Ruan Sims a call because she’s also a firey in NSW and I wanted to get advice on how she juggles it all with her media commitments too.
"But in my mind I’ve been fortunate to win a premiership with the Broncos, played three Origins and won a World Cup, which I did not ever see happening.
"I've achieved a lot in the game in such a short space of time which I'm so fortunate for, but I needed to look at a career that could take me through until I'm 65.
"It’s stability that I need and life after footy which could be only 3-5 years away and I was at the perfect age physically to undergo the testing.
"I knew in my mind what I wanted to do but it was a matter of explaining it to people."
Brown joined the Fire Academy in February before graduating in June just days before Origin II kicked off in Townsville.
Despite forgoing her Maroons No.9 jersey to young gun Destiny Brill, the 28-year-old holds no regrets.
"I knew I made the right decision when Origin came around because I didn't feel like I wished I'd been there," Brown said.
"I was obviously excited and proud of the girls and love pulling on a Maroons jersey but there wasn’t a part of me that regretted making myself unavailable for Origin.
"Hopefully I can get back into an Origin jersey again one day but definitely happy with how it's all turned out. Looking back I have no regrets and wouldn't change a thing."
Brown has been posted to Surfers Paradise Fire Station where she does four days of shift work in between playing footy for the Titans.
She's felt the pros and cons of balancing work life with footy again with the support of the club, in particular with Murphy.
"I knew I could juggle both and being posted on the Gold Coast was like winning the lottery because it is rare," Brown said.
"Murph is amazing and super understanding. She knows what shift life is like and some of the things we can see as well on the job which could make it a tough day.
"If I’m an hour late or get held up at a job she is OK about it and just taking the coach side of it away being able to have her to help me make the decision she was great to chat to.
"My preparation for the NRLW this year has been very different. I’ve been a bit rusty the first few games getting back into the swing of things but also felt much stronger with all the training I've had. I definitely notice it on the field."
As for what's to come next with life as a firefighter, Brown is well-prepared to be put into all sorts of situations in the future.
"You've been trained and given all this knowledge that you want to put it into practice," she said.
"It’s like you’ve done all this video review on an opposition and now you want to be able to play them.
"I’m hoping for a cool job where no one is injured but the reality is one day it will happen where you just won't be able to think and go into action.
"The best advice I've been told is we’re there to make someone else’s day a little bit less sh*t on the job.
"We're going to see someone else on the worst day of their life probably so whatever we can do to make it easier for them the better."
Match: Titans v Wests Tigers
Round 7 -
Venue: Cbus Super Stadium, Gold Coast