Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Art & SES post: A Crew of One

Hi everyone,

This post combines two of my favourite things: art and emergency response.  I'll take this moment to apologise for any deficiencies with the layout. I'm writing this using the Blogger app (rather than the website) which has less functionality.

The painting that's inspired this post is John Millais' "The Rescue" (1855), which shows a firefighter returning three children to their mother after rescuing them from a burning building.

Image from the National Gallery of Victoria: http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/work/4185/

It interests me that the picture is actually understated. The fireman looks focused but anonymous  (notice how his eyes are obscured). The children look calm but relieved. And the woman joyful but dignified.

Wikipedia tells me that there have been various readings of this painting based on class (proletarian firefighter / bourgeois mother) or gender (why is the children's father not in the picture?).  I find it more intetesting that there are only five people in the picture, and only one emergency responder.  In the State Emergency Service (as I imagine in most emergency services) we're trained to think of ourselves as part of a team (or 'crew', in SES  parlance). We turn out as a crew. We work as a crew. We debrief as a crew.  Turning out to jobs 'one up' is strongly discouraged, and in many cases (for example, roof damage) forbidden.  Attempting a rescue solo is so plainly dangerous to both responder and casualty that it would only be done in truly extraordinary situations.  So what I wonder as I look at the painting is what else can be inferred about the scene: should we infer that there were other men manning the hoses? Police keeping the public back? I don't believe any ambulance service existed at that time.  And was the fireman in the image the bravest in his crew?  Or a hothead who left his post to cover himself in glory?

This has been on my mind a bit this week after a couple of days of bad weather saw me going to a few callouts on my own.  The first was on Wednesday morning, when my pager went off at about 0300 to advise of a tree down and causing a traffic hazard in one lane of the Goulburn Valley Highway on this side of the Toolamba Bridge.  I was duty officer so I rang Dispatch and acknowledged the page.  The incident was about 10 minutes drive from the farm.  I decided that the best thing to do would be to go and take a look and then decide whether to request further members.  As I was driving there my pager beeped to say that the Police had reported the matter resolved.  I kept going to be on the safe side, and found this scene: the tree was no longer a traffic hazard.

A further job came up on Wednesday afternoon - a dead tree which had fallen in a backyard in Shepparton against a clothes line and shed.   The caller was (correctly in my view) concerned it might dislodge and fall, injuring her children or pets.  Absent any other available members I turned out on my own and found a simple little job I was able to deal with by means of some lifting and a couple of quick chainsaw cuts.  Much the same issue arose late Thursday afternoon with a call to a tree in a back yard which the wet ground had stopped supporting.  It had begun to tip and was leaning against a fence.  It was a trivial job, and I had trouble getting a crew, so once again I went out one-up.  In the event, the caller was keen to keep the tree.  It was still viable, so instead of cutting it up I stabilised it with ropes for the owner to rectify permanently at the weekend.

The lesson I suppose I take from this is that "The Rescue" is really as far as one can get from emergency response.  A job you can do one-up is probably the least troublesome and dangerous.  But where death or injury to responder or casualty is a real risk?  The team works.

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