First Responder Story: ‘Volunteering is a big part of our identity, but we’re disconnected this year’

WARNING: This article contains confronting content

Volunteering is a big part of our identity.

Because of coronavirus, we haven’t had face-to-face training since March, and we don’t know when it’ll go back. A lot of the volunteers – especially people who are retired, those who live alone, or the ones who have moved to the area and don’t know many people yet – have expressed how isolated they’re feeling.

I’m the deputy leader of an SES unit. They always call me the mum of the team, because I check on the welfare of everyone. When the team went to the fires, they literally got a text one night and they were gone in the morning, so I was asking what needed to be done at home, and making sure their kids were okay – remember, it was Christmas time and New Year’s; times when people are usually with their families.

They’re all volunteers so we have to make sure they’re still wanting to volunteer and they’re getting what they want from it. But at the moment everyone’s really disconnected from the unit.

On top of that, there have been a lot of really serious calls this year. From the bushfires to a lot of body recoveries – at one point, we went to three in two weeks – and three weeks of major storm weekends.

They also went to a flood and storm rescue where a child had died – that was enough for one of our team members; he couldn’t cope and he left the unit.

And there was one where a lady had jumped, holding her two-year-old baby, and some of the boys found her: she had deceased and the baby had survived. It’s just ruined these men – how do you come back from that?

So, when some of us went paddle boarding with Fortem, we all really enjoyed spending time together doing something more fun.

Later, we decided to do the surfing program too.

One of our guys that came surfing, he’s a stay-at-home dad with a newborn, and he’s admitted that he’s finding it really tough. Going surfing on that day was something he discovered that’s just for him. He’s since bought a surfboard, and it’s given him that interest and that leisure to explore. There’s no way he would have done it without Fortem – he wouldn’t have stopped day-to-day life and been able to plan it. But when we said that this program is on and this is where it is, it took a lot of barriers away. For anyone with lack of motivation or depression, it’s a much-needed reason to stop and chill out.

We go to a lot of serious calls, but to be able to have some fun together helps to make our role more about mateship and camaraderie as well.

As told to Fortem Australia