The State Emergency Service Association does a great job of advocating on behalf of its members – our wonderful volunteer SES colleagues – so we share this article from our friends at the Great Southern Weekender because it goes to the very heart of an issue that the Association of Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades (AVBFB) has been raising for many years: the need for the Emergency Services Levy (ESL) to be more flexible and allow for localised fit-for-purpose expenditure without unnecessary bureaucratic involvement.
VOLUNTEER State Emergency Service units in the Great Southern will continue to perform searches and rescues without protective cold climate gear, despite years of ongoing efforts to secure funding for such equipment.
SES representatives have made regular appeals for assistance from the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) and have been left frustrated by what they see as a lack of action.
Former Manager of the Albany SES Unit Ron Panting first brought up the issue with DFES about seven years ago.
“We just seem to run into a brick wall,” Mr Panting said.
“Every time I went [to the regional office] I used to bring it up.
“It was only a matter of time before you were going to put volunteers out there and something was going to happen.”
Mr Panting’s concerns eventually became a reality, with numerous close calls occurring during search and rescue operations in the years since the issue was first raised.
One operation on Bluff Knoll about four years ago resulted in a police officer trapped on the mountain in cold conditions.
“The police lowered one of the policemen down and then the helicopter couldn’t get him out,” Mr Panting recalled.
“He was left stuck down there with the person that was lost, absolutely freezing and they were there overnight.
“A couple of years ago we had [another] search up there and the vollies were coming back purple … it was that cold.”
Mr Panting put together a cost estimate for the gear SES volunteers were asking for and determined the total cost for a cold weather jacket, pants, socks and mountaineering boots package would be around $600.
“A vollie’s life is worth every bit of that because they give up their time, they don’t get paid, they’re up there doing the searches in the freezing cold,” he said.
State Emergency Service Volunteer Association (SESVA) President Gordon Hall said Great Southern SES units had been requesting assistance for “10 or 15 years” and that recent pushes to regional DFES chief superintendents in the past 18 months had made “no progress whatsoever.”
He said clothing volunteers currently utilise cannot withstand the conditions that may arise on Bluff Knoll or in the Stirling Ranges.
“Straightaway it can be affecting the rescuer, let alone the person to be rescued,” he said.
“It would not be an efficient or safe rescue if they haven’t got the appropriate cold climate equipment.”
SESVA Secretary Lin Booth said at least four appeals in the last three months had also turned up empty.
“My comments around DFES are one year is the fast decision, five years is an average, most take longer,” he said.
“I’m the secretary and I’ve had gutsful of DFES and how they progress things.”
According to DFES Assistant Commissioner of Country Operations Graham Swift, the Department is currently exploring the operational requirement for cold climate equipment for Great Southern SES units.
“In this case, cold climate equipment refers to tents, sleeping bags and cooking equipment,” he said.
“The health, welfare and safety of our volunteers is paramount and we’re currently working through with WA Police, as the Hazard Management Agency for search, the requirement for volunteers to participate in searches during adverse conditions.”
Mr Swift said DFES recently supplied wet weather gear to SES units across Western Australia and was consulting other emergency management agencies about their use of cold climate clothing.
Emergency Services Minister Fran Logan said the Department valued the work done by SES volunteers and that “it’s important they have the right equipment and clothing that is appropriate and suited to the task”.