Saturday, 6 August 2016

Talk given to Tatura Probus Club on 28 July 2016.

I was recently invited to speak to the Tatura Probus Club about the SES.  This was the talk I gave.

Talk by Stephen Tuck (Controller, Tatura SES Unit) to Tatura Probus Club at Lagozzino’s Top Pub, 28 July 2016.
Good morning everyone and thank you for the invitation to speak to you today.  As your president has just said, my name is Stephen Tuck and I’m the Controller at the Tatura State Emergency Service Unit.
I’m sure most of you already know what the SES does, but by way of summary we are the control agency for storms, floods, earthquakes and tsunamis in Victoria.  That is, our role is to guide the community in preparing for these events, manage the response when they occur, and coordinate recovery after they have occurred.  In addition, we are a support agency for a large number of other emergency events and provide specialist assistance to other emergency response agencies.  For example, Victoria Police are the control agency for missing persons; the SES is regularly tasked with providing teams to undertake searches in rural and remote areas.
One of our key roles, both as a support agency and control agency, is conducting rescues and in particular road crash rescue (for which the control agency is Victoria Police).  The accident at Harston earlier this week, was one which we attended and where we conducted a rescue.

A Little History

As best we’ve been able to establish, the Tatura SES Unit started life in about 1968 as the Shire of Rodney Civil Defence Organisation.  Along with most civil defence services at that time, its role would have tended heavily to preparation for alleviating the effects of war, and particularly nuclear war.  Even today in some SES sheds, one still comes across publications covering how to set up a small refugee camp, how to register displaced persons, how to operate an emergency telephone system and so on.  As the threat of war diminished through the 1980s and into the 1990s, the SES directed its energies towards natural disaster relief, and along the way acquired a rescue function which had previously been carried out by St John Ambulance (I was interested to learn the other day that the Westgate Bridge collapse in 1970 was the last major rescue operation carried out by St Johns).

Civil Defence practice, Canberra, 1968 (National
Archives of Australia, Image No A1200/L78195)


The organization today consists of 150 separate units around the state.  They range in size from less than a dozen members (like Mitta Mitta) to over a hundred (like Wyndham).  Each unit has a large amount of discretion in how it organizes itself and the work it focuses on.  Many units outside of Melbourne, for example, are responsible for carrying out road crash rescues, and they train and equip themselves for this work.  Others have developed a particular expertise in things they are often asked to do.  For example, Warragul and Mansfield are routinely asked to do land searches, and Craigieburn is regularly tasked with assisting the police with evidence searches.

Each Unit will have a controller and a number of Deputy Controllers, and below them Team and Section Leaders with specific areas of responsibility (for example, equipment maintenance; finance).  The most striking this about the service is that there is, genuinely, enough work for everyone.  A member who is young and hale and hearty can certainly find work “on the tools”.  However, a member who has a few injuries or who isn’t as young as they used to be will still be a critical part of a unit – for example, by maintaining chainsaws, managing inventory or finance, or by developing a cluster of specialist skills.  The accident at Harston this week was an excellent example of precisely that: The team that went out to the scene ran into difficulty communicating with dispatch and only poor radio communication could be achieved.  However, one of our members who is currently not able to go out into the field remained at the shed managing communications.  The teams in the trucks were able to communicate with the shed and he relayed the communications to dispatch.  Without that sort of support, we simply could not have done the work we needed to do.

Our Unit

The Tatura unit currently has about 20 members of whom 15 are active and 12 operational.  We have three vehicles –
  • A heavy rescue truck, which is our workhorse and which carries all of the equipment which we might be required to use for any given job including storm damage response, rescue and flood control. 
  • A four-wheel drive Nissan Patrol, which is chiefly used as a transport vehicle and which would be used to tow a ‘storm trailer’.  This last item is a heavy trailer carrying all of the gear we would usually carry for responding to severe weather events: plastic sheeting, rooftop safety equipment, chainsaws, lighting and so on.
  • A four-wheel drive Nissan Navara, which carries lighting and chainsaws and is best suited to responding to fallen trees which cause traffic hazards.
Our numbers currently enable us to put all three of our vehicles on the road at the one time with a full crew, so we’re well equipped to respond to a range of simultaneous emergency situations in the Goulburn Valley.

In addition, we are a ‘boat’ unit.  That is, the State organization has allocated us a Savage Jabiru and trained a number of our members to undertake flood rescues.


Road Rescue

The SES has largely avoided becoming entangled in the dispute between the Country Fire Authority and the United Firefighters Union.  You may be aware however that one of the claims in the disputed Enterprise Bargaining Agreement is that paid firefighters be trained and equipped to undertake road crash rescue.  This would potentially affect the SES, although my personal view is that this shouldn’t be treated as a cause for agitation: at present a review of Victoria’s road crash rescue arrangements is underway and changes affecting both the CFA and SES are likely to occur.  However, the review has been long expected: current road rescue arrangements were established in 2002 and it’s appropriate to confirm that they still match the strengths and capacities of all agencies.

Current road rescue arrangements in Victoria sound more convoluted than in fact they are.  Broadly speaking, Victoria Police are the control agency for road accidents.  For example, they investigate for any driving offences that may have occurred, manage traffic and assure public safety, lay any charges and (in extreme cases) prepare reports for the coroner.  Ambulance Victoria are responsible for patient care and transportation of casualties to hospital.  The CFA manages fire suppression and hazardous chemical control.  The SES is responsible for extrication of trapped casualties; we are also regularly asked to assist police by providing lighting and other support following accidents. 

Somewhat surprisingly, because our role is to carry out road crash rescue, we technically have no role where a casualty is deceased (and therefore beyond the reach of rescue).  However, where the deceased is (so to speak) trapped in a wrecked vehicle, the police will usually ask us to extricate the body.  In such a case we do this with the same techniques and professionalism as we would use on a live casualty, showing proper respect for the dignity of the deceased.

Current challenges

Like most volunteer organizations, the SES has a constant challenge to recruit and retain members: some of you may be aware that  the Tatura-Harston Red Cross unit has had precisely such a difficulty.  On the other hand, as the search for Luke Shambrook near Eildon last year showed, members of the public will reliably step forward when emergencies occur.  This poses some challenges, because emergency work (if performed defectively) can be extremely dangerous to both casualties and rescuers.  That said, this is a not new problem.  One of the assumptions which guided civil defence in the cold war was that in the event of a nuclear war, there would simply not be enough emergency responders to deal with a major catastrophe.  Instead, the assumption was that emergency response would be carried out by people with no or minimal training, with trained responders providing the direction and backbone of the response (as in the film Warning Red from 1956).

Ultimately this may be the future for emergency services of all types.
For our part, the SES trains people for all of the core functions of the SES: that is, the initial training any new member receives are the basic skills in rope work, lighting, machinery use and so on that are deployed at most SES incidents, as well as training in first aid and work health and safety.  After this, a person can develop their skill set as much or as little as they please, with training in use of chainsaws, general rescue, working on rooves or as part of a ground crew, undertaking storm and flood mitigation, undertaking road crash rescue, liaising with the media and undertaking community education.  Overwhelmingly the training is nationally accredited and transferrable.

The other particular challenge facing many units (including ours) is dealing with culturally and linguistically diverse communities.  In the Shepparton area, of course, we have a large population of speakers of Dari and Pashto, and a seasonal backpacker population speaking a range of languages.  This obviously can be challenging with establishing the nature and extent of a person’s emergency.  There are also anecdotal reports of cultural matters which may present a challenge: for example, a gentleman from some Middle Eastern cultures may object to being given directions by a woman, or to having a man speak directly to the gentleman’s wife (although I must say, I’m yet to meet anyone who has encountered such a problem first hand, and I think regardless of a person’s culture, almost everyone understands when someone is there to help them).  This too, however, is only a problem to the extent that we allow it to be.  A project for our unit over the next six months is targeted recruitment aimed at Shepparton’s Afghan and related populations.


Overall then, the Tatura SES Unit has good reason to be optimistic about its future.  It has a history of service stretching back almost fifty years.  Even though there are a few challenges in our current environment, there are great opportunities for members of the public to serve the community while also benefiting themselves.

Thank you again for inviting me to speak today.

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