Don’t Criticise the Volunteer

There’s been a lot of stuff about emergency response in Australian media in the last couple of weeks. It’s been chaotic in both Queensland and New South Wales, with incredible amounts of rain and astounding floods destroying homes, towns, and properties.

Sadly, there have been many reports of people remaining stuck in dangerous, and sometimes life threatening situations, unable to be rescued, or even make contact with emergency services. There has been a lot of criticism. This has been incredibly difficult to watch and hear, and my heart goes out to all of those volunteers who have been unable to cope with the sheer quantity of emergency situations that have been, and are, ongoing.

For reference, my husband and I met in the volunteer fire brigade in a remote area Western Australian town 32 years ago. We fought fires as volunteers up until we had children. Then we became State Emergency Service volunteers. (Mainly because there was a slightly slower lead in time, and two marvellous members of our unit who saw their role as unit child minders and catering crew.) We haven’t been volunteers now for about 19 years. However it remains a cherished part of our life experiences. A typical call-out for us when we were vertical rescue team personnel went something like:

Phone rings: X here. Rescue on, kids to A.

At which point, we’d grab our kids and a small bag of stuff, deliver them to A, and head for the unit. However many hours or days later, we’d arrive back at the unit, filthy and exhausted, to a hot meal and happy children.

So my writing perspective is of someone who spent over a decade and a half in various volunteer emergency services. And again some further perspective. The SES (State Emergency Service) in NSW is almost completely formed of volunteers. There are about 8000 SES volunteers in NSW. There are eight million people in NSW. That’s 1000 people per SES volunteer in NSW. There are 240 units in NSW. Some will be smaller, others larger, but on average, there could be around 33 people per unit. Those volunteers are not paid, and have done all of their training in their own time. And will probably have to turn up to their paid employment the next day.

Units are funded by local government, state government, and fundraising. We used to have a meme on our unit wall which said: ‘Remember, the equipment you are using was supplied by the lowest tenderer.’ If a unit is fortunate, it will have one, two, or even three flood boats. (Bigger units.) There will generally be several vehicles of various types, dependent on the unit’s location, and various roles. Our old unit specialised in vertical rescue along with its core responsibilities of earthquakes, floods, cyclones and storms. We did fire support operations as well – mostly logistics and communications. We did not have a flood boat. We had two four wheel drive vehicles, one of which was supplied by a grant that we applied for, while the other one was supplied by the SES organisation itself. In WA, our budget was supplied by the local shire. We had to lobby hard for it. Very hard. Sometimes it amounted to begging.

One of the things I’m trying to say, is that some of those being criticised probably haven’t had any sleep for days. Tiny groups of trained volunteers are attempting to cope with entire communities under water. They will have limited quantities of equipment, and limited facilities. And no back up team. Because of the widespread flooding, the back up teams are dealing with their own disasters. This is hard for all involved.

And how do I know this? Even though I’ve not been an emergency service volunteer for a long time now, I remember how hard we worked in cyclones and floods and when we lifted broken people out of gorges. And if you want to criticise a volunteer for taking time out to eat – remember: You want them to rescue you with a working brain and a functioning body. Rescue is not a simple task. It has to be done safely. Otherwise, who rescues the rescuer when the rescuer needs rescuing?

There has been criticism of the ADF. It’s our defence force. It’s the army, airforce and navy. We have two family members in the ADF. Like all ADF members, they have jobs. They do particular things in relation to those jobs. And although the defence force is, and has been, regularly deployed to assist in disasters, the Australian public needs to remember that it’s not actually their job. They can, and often do, supply manpower. But they’re not generally trained in things like swift water rescue, for example, as it’s not their job. Their job is to protect Australia – to defend it using the specialist skills for their particular job. And I reckon with some of the interesting international tensions right now, that a chunk of them might be a bit busy with their normal jobs. Not to mention those already deployed to places like Tonga, to assist with the aftermath of a volcanic eruption. Or who have been assisting in nursing homes, Covid testing facilities, or other activities related to the pandemic.

If we want to criticise anyone, we should criticise those who ignore climate change. We should criticise those who approve housing and business developments on flood plains. We should criticise those who underfund emergency services. We should criticise those who ignore the experts when they recommend flood mitigation planning, bushfire mitigation planning, and who ignore the experts when they tell them to act now, or bad things will happen.

In the past few years, many bad things have happened. Many (not all) are related to climate change. We have heard the word ‘unprecedented’ used constantly. And it has been unprecedented. But not necessarily unexpected. The Australian Climate Council has good information about the normal cycles of extreme weather, that can be expected to occur more frequently, as climate change accelerates. There’s also a nice article from SBS explaining what may happen in the future, and talking about normal cycles and climate change.

So when we criticise, we should ask ourselves three things.

  1. Who is responsible for disaster planning?
  2. Why are there not enough resources when things go wrong?
  3. How can I change this?

The answers to these questions are important because they should inform us. They should motivate us to lobby, volunteer ourselves, and be personally prepared. They should encourage us to vote in an informed manner and not to waste our vote. And yes, that was a political statement from me. Don’t donkey vote, informal vote, or avoid voting. If you don’t vote in an informed manner, then don’t complain.

Do criticise the government. Think about who’s been in power and not listening to the experts. Think about the rural areas who have few resources except themselves, and lack of mobile phone reception or medical services. (And then wonder why they don’t have those things…)

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