Why We Wear Orange

Why We Wear Orange

18/05/2023, 1:18 PM

On Wednesday 17th May 2023, the Victoria State Emergency Service (VICSES) celebrated Wear Orange Wednesday (WOW Day), a national day of thanks for the thousands of SES volunteers who serve our communities 24 hours a day, seven days a week; through storm, flood, road crash rescue, and so much more.

WOW Day is the chance to say ‘thank you’ to SES volunteers. Volunteers are the backbone of our service. The past three years have been some of the busiest years in the organisation’s history.

To celebrate, we profiled a few of our amazing volunteers from around the state to find out why they volunteer with VICSES, and what their experience has been like during such a busy period in our history.

Henry Gerdtz: VICSES Bannockburn Unit

VICSES Bannockburn Unit volunteer Henry Gerdtz at his unit, 2023 [credit: VICSES]

Henry Gerdtz joined the VICSES Bannockburn Unit last year, attending his first calls for help from the community in October. He was kept busy all month and through to November, during which VICSES Maroondah Unit volunteers answered 270 Requests for Assistance during that two-month period. This included 125 trees down over roads and properties, and 83 flood-related incidents.

As the youngest member of the unit when he joined, Henry started out learning about how to operate the radio, undertake rope knotting techniques, and how to fill and lay sandbags. He attended his first road crash rescue incident as a radio operator; keep the the dispatch team up-to-date, correctly record the actions of the other volunteers, and communicate with the other two VICSES vehicles in attendance.

Henry recently passed his crew member training, with training and testing that took place over the first weekend of May. It’s a long way from his part-time job at Coles. “I didn’t know I could be an emergency responder, until I was,” says Henry.

“I have always been interested in the emergency services. Right now I’m doing a St John’s non-emergency patient transport course and, in the future, I would like to get involved with search and rescue operations,” Henry continues.

"Some of the jobs were a bit stressful like a major flood or road incident,” says Henry, “but knowing what to do when you get there is the important thing. I learned from having so much practical experience in a short space of time. It’s also so important to ask a lot of good questions.”

Irene Cracknell: VICSES Rutherglen Unit

(L-R) VICSES volunteers Amy Cracknell and Irene Cracknell [credit: VICSES]

Irene got involved with VICSES Rutherglen Unit not that long after it as formed in 1979, joining in 1982 as the first female volunteer.

Though Irene initially assisted with administration, she went on to train in abseiling and high-angle rescue. Irene has been Unit Controller twice, rising to the position for the first time 30 years ago.

The unit today has ten active members, who are always on call.

As well as being a road crash rescue unit, the VICSES volunteers were extremely busy during the flood event. In total, VICSES Rutherglen Unit volunteers responded to 64 calls for help from the community during October and November of last year, including 38 calls for flood-related incidents.

The VICSES volunteers worked throughout the flood event, alongside local Country Fire Authority (CFA) brigades, to prepare the town for flooding, by filling and laying sandbags to protect residential property and vital infrastructure.

“You get the satisfaction of helping people,” says Irene. “You’re helping people at one of the worst times of their lives, if you think of road accidents, or even some search and rescue operations. Being able to make a difference in those moments, makes a positive difference to my life.”

“I would thank our unit for being a great team,” says Irene. “Nothing’s ever too much trouble for them. It’s their attitude and their willingness to get stuck in and do what has to be done, which sets them apart as individuals.”

Toriana Collins: VICSES Gisborne Unit

VICSES Gisborne Unit volunteer Tori Collins, using the Safe Working at Heights System (SWAHS) 

Tori joined VICSES Gisborne Unit in February 2020, and undertook most of her training online until - in January 2021 - she had her first child.

While she was pregnant, Tori pivoted to community engagement work setting up static displays, car parking for events, or undertaking scout visits. From these activities she became the section leader at VICSES Gisborne Unit for public relations, events, and presentations.

However, having attended only one call for help from the community before she became pregnant, Tori was keen to get out again in the field with her crew. Six months after her baby was born, Tori answered the call and put her skills to the test, during what would become the busiest month on record for our volunteers  (10,740 RFAs), a record which was only surpassed on 24 October last year.

Last year, during the floods, VICSES Gisborne Unit volunteers attended 133 calls for help from the community throughout October and November. This included 56 calls to flood-related incidents and 43 trees down across roads and properties.

Thank you to all of our volunteers, who are new mums, students, retirees, and everyone in between. They are the community they serve.

“When I actually had my baby, I was on maternity leave but she was six months old by the time the June storms hit in ’21, so I was able to go out and assist,” says Tori. “It was actually really good, and having a really good family base - my husband is more than accommodating - he’s really for me doing it.”

“I had quite severe post-natal depression during that period. I moved past that by getting out there and having that feeling that I was doing something for others, and getting back to my second family at VICSES. We spent a lot of time during the storms. We were out on the road at one point for seven days in a row.”

“I would say give it a go!” says Tori. “I’ve learned new skills along the way, built friendships, what else could you ask for?”

Sarah Pendry: VICSES Phillip Island Unit

VICSES Phillip Island Unit volunteer Sarah Pendry at her unit, 2023 [credit: VICSES]

Sarah Pendry is a full-time carer for her daughter with Down’s Syndrome, and a son with special needs. In 2021, she broke her ankle on a camping trip and, when she called for help, VICSES Maffra Unit volunteers arrived to carry her out to a waiting ambulance.

Sarah was so impressed, she joined her local unit in Phillip Island. Despite her injury, Sarah attends calls for help from the community for fallen trees, assist her fellow volunteers at road crash rescue incidents, casualty handling, and is currently learning how to become a radio operator.

As well as being a road crash rescue unit, VICSES Phillip Island Unit volunteers responded to 32 calls for help from the community during October and November of last year, including seven calls for flood-related incidents.

“For me, I’ve never felt confident enough in myself,” says Sarah, “and it just gives me that extra confidence and especially to challenge myself at this age, and it’s something very outside of the box. I’m a hands-on woman. I’ve been on my own with the kids, so I give things ago. It’s just challenging yourself and putting something in there for yourself, other than in the home setting.”

Sanjan Dawson, Renae Featherstone, and Grayson Tanner: VICSES Lismore Unit

VICSES Lismore Unit volunteers Renae Featherstone, Sanjan Dawson, and Grayson Tanner, May 2023 [credit: VICSES]

Sanjan, Renae, and Grayson are volunteers with the VICSES Lismore Unit who, last October, took on leadership roles during an operational event at Skipton: a community which experienced severe flooding last year.

VICSES Lismore Unit’s crew of twelve active volunteers responded to 33 calls for help from the community during the flood event throughout October. This included nine flood-related incidents, seven trees down over roads and properties, and six road rescues.

Sanjan initially took on the role of Incident Controller, and remained in post until an Incident Control Centre was established, when he took on the role of Division Commander for the rest of the operation.

Grayson, though he worked during the day, took on the nighttime operation of the evacuation centre in Skipton, where he cared for those who could not return home.

On the first day of the flood event, Renae told her employer she knew they wouldn’t be opening for business, having spent the first day of the flood event triaging requests for assistance from the community. Renae went on to record extensive notes of intelligence relating to the flood, shared by Victoria Police, local CFA brigades, and observers upstream - taking note of the flood level - to monitor vulnerable properties, road closures, and obstructions.

Renae even fielded a call from a bus, with most seats occupied, which required assistance to navigate along the flooded roads around Skipton; its thoroughfares impassable.

Sanjan, Renae, and Grayson represent the new generation of VICSES volunteers. We thank them for the extraordinary work they undertook to protect the community at Skipton, in its moment of need, even as they were personally affected by the same weather event.

“Everyone was affected by the floods,” says Sanjan. “My family run a mixed enterprise: we do cattle, sheep, and cropping.”

“The call that really got me was from my partner telling me I had forgotten to move a mob of sheep who were quite near a creek.,” says Sanjan. “On our farm we lost twenty kilometres of fencing, and creek crossings.”

“On the first day there was myself, and two other members, who turned out to all the calls for assistance in Skipton,” says Renae. “That relationship was really good. We received crews from throughout the region to help us with sandbagging, and three or four land-based swift water rescue-trained volunteers.”

“With a bit of teamwork,” says Renae, “we were able to access the floodwater from either side.”

“As a small unit, we’re a bit of family,” says Grayson. “As much as you love helping everyone else, you get it back in spades, on a personal level and in the community. Though I only knew the Unit Controller, Col, when I signed up; there’s another eleven people I’ve now made friends with.”

Maureen Kindred: VICSES Bairnsdale Unit

VICSES Bairnsdale Unit volunteer Maureen Kindred undertaking a road crash rescue simulation (last to right), 2023 [credit: VICSES]

Maureen Kindred returned to Australia in 2018, after many years in California, to care for a sick parent. Having returned to place where she hardly knew anyone, she called VICSES on behalf of an elderly neighbour - concerned that her garage would flood - and was so impressed with the crew who came to assist she asked them if she could join.

In California, Maureen had become familiar with severe flooding and mudslides, where neighbours had lost their homes, so she understood the value that volunteering with VICSES brought to the community. As a former nurse, Maureen went to become responsible health and wellness at the unit, as well as first aid, eventually becoming a Unit Officer.

VICSES Bairnsdale Unit volunteers appear in a report by WIN News Gippsland, 17 May 2023

During the flood event last year, Maureen and others stayed on call in Bairnsdale, while several unit members went on deployment around the state.

As well as being a road crash rescue unit, the VICSES volunteers were very busy during the flood event. In total, VICSES Rutherglen Unit volunteers responded to 11 calls for help from the community during October and November of last year, including 38 calls for flood-related incidents.

VICSES Bairnsdale Unit volunteers don’t just lead in flood events, they also support CFA and other agencies during fire season. In 2019, VICSES Bairnsdale Unit volunteers worked with FFMVic to evacuate Victorians from Lake Tyres, with others flying to Mallacoota for a week to assist, which culminated in a dramatic evacuation.

“It gives you confidence,” says Maureen. “After my divorce, I felt I had the floor kicked out from underneath me and I thought, I’ve got to get it back again. With all the training and support from the SES, it really has done that. If you’re not the type who wants to go walking for miles in the bush, you can help at the unit, and everyone is so nice."

“A lot of our members are retired but they have had interesting careers from which the community can benefit,” says Maureen, formerly a registered nurse. “We do so many other types of rescue operations, community outreach, and - during the flood event - plenty of sandbagging!”

Victorians were encouraged to get their workplaces, families, and friends involved in WOW Day celebrations; to wear orange, and to post a photo to social media using the hashtags #WOWDay and #ThankYouSES.

How did you celebrate WOW Day? Tag us at #ThankYouSES with your photos.

If you would like to donate to or support VICSES, visit the Fundraising and Sponsorship page on our website.

Interested in joining as a volunteer? Join us.