Fire and flood – natural disasters that seem so unnatural, road fatalities and other emergencies are a constant reality for relief workers. Susie Boswell gains an insight to one service standing ready to help.
I’m really glad Kevin Sherwood hasn’t worn his glaring orange SES overalls to lunch. Let’s face it, as a fashion statement they’re just plain frightful; they’d stand out harshly abrasive against the casual clobber other Mullet diners are wearing this sunny late-summer Saturday. “Shocking, aren’t they!” the deputy local controller agrees.
Yet I imagine there’s no sight you’d rather see than a hulking orange SES presence looming in the distance if it was emerging ahead of the hulking orange flames of a bushfire, unless perhaps the figures of approaching fire fighters, whom the SES works closely with. Indeed, as we relax over cool Cokes and await a couple of dishes of scrumptious fish and salad we’re mindful of our good fortune; definitely this is a counterpoint to the way Victoria’s bushfire bereaved and homeless must be spending this day. A further contrast is, like far northern Australia, we’re just emerging here from a sodden week of flooding under torrents of water that would have been a godsend down south.
Sherwood and his SES colleagues are getting their first respite from dealing with the consequences of the local deluge: 160 storm and flood jobs attended to in just 24 hours. “It was one of the biggest events for quite some time,” he reflects. “We did tree jobs, tops of roof jobs, sandbagging, supply drops, fuel drops, and evacuated about 14 people from up the river. Most of our members were able to volunteer; we had help from the Rural Fire Service as well, and the public helped fill sandbags. We put out a call on radio for people to help because our members were tied up. More than 20 people turned up. There’s a good community spirit here.”
Sherwood’s colleague Ray Richards, the SES head, couldn’t make it to lunch. The worst of the mopping up’s over, but Richards has to work today. Like all SES personnel he’s a volunteer, and had to go back to work and catch up time at his regular job.
We mull over the terrible fire tragedy south of the border. But meanwhile, here at home, the SES has some bright news: Sherwood, Richards and 60 other members of the brigade are looking forward to the official opening this month of their new $1.5m-plus Central Road HQ, a real beauty. Its plain exterior belies a superbly outfitted air-conditioned complex including an impressive emergency operations nerve centre, a well-appointed VKG and VHF radio room, big training room, board room, offices, huge video screens, communications equipment, whiteboards, even a walk-in wardrobe for the orange terrors – and a vast garage for flood boats, first response vehicles, a rescue truck and equipment trailers all armed with impressive paraphernalia for dealing with emergencies: chainsaws for fallen trees, cutters and spreaders to access mangled vehicles, pulleys, ropes and more.
Today, Sherwood is a once again a volunteer in a different guise: giving up his free time to offer a snapshot view of our local SES and its typical members – a band of happy, well-balanced folk grateful to finally have state of the art facilities to help them help others. From 18 to 80, a quarter to a third of them women – one member with 30 years service – they’re from diverse backgrounds and do diverse jobs within the service, all with the singular aim of reaching out a hand to their fellow man.
Sherwood, for instance, is in finance by day. After 20 years with the Commonwealth Bank in Sydney he made the lifestyle change, moved north five years ago and, his job aside: “joined the SES here – first thing I did – I’d always wanted to do it but didn’t have the time in Sydney”. After first working with Coastline Credit Union, he joined St George in business banking, three and a half years ago. Members’ employers are generous in allowing them time off when emergencies call, Sherwood says, but to return the favour “we all try afterwards to make up the time off by working late, or through lunchtimes”.
New members are given induction and first aid courses and then do general rescues. “It’s up to them what they do afterwards – specialise in car accidents, or vertical rescues, or flood boats, or those with an office background might choose operations or logistics.” Wednesday nights are training nights and crews get together at weekends too. There’s satisfaction in seeing people progress, becoming team leaders; for the more senior members there are regular meetings of the Local Emergency Management Committee, providing part of the remedial program for first drink/drug driving offenders and delivering the Power of Choice awareness program for schools, stressing the ripple effect that tragedies have on families, friends, workmates. For SES members, there’s their own grief counsellor.
Sherwood’s keen to pay tribute to ambulance, firies and police, and State and local government authorities who provide the main facilities. But further funds are always needed. (A gap between the new SES and Ambulance buildings in Central Road awaits a fire brigade building). This afternoon, Sherwood will return to HQ to fix up some things (the service is still settling in to the new premises, just two months old) and then join other members to raise funds. Any of us could one day be on the receiving end of the Jaws of Life, a $30,000 piece of equipment, he points out – “anything for rescue’s expensive. The annual hot rod show’s on at Town Green at 4.30. They ask us to help with traffic control, so we put on a barbecue and rattle the buckets around. We do that at various community events. After storms, people send in donations too.”
Outside duty, SES members are a big family, Sherwood says. “I play golf, go four-wheel driving, camping with them; there’s lots we do outside SES together.” In fact, SES takes up pretty much all his spare time; it’s his hobby and his passion.
Except there’s a new, overriding element in his life that puts the SES in second place. At Christmas, Sherwood’s wife Debbie gave birth to their first child. At time of writing little Lachie’s eight weeks old. After lunch, I hold this baby in my arms – a tiny bundle of life’s blessings, a ray of hope against disaster and unhappiness. I see his parents’ pride as they look on and notice this little one’s gorgeous blue eyes, delicate fair skin and wavy shock of hair.
Lovely, wispy – orange – hair.
> Out to Lunch is hosted by Lou Perri at the Stunned Mullet.