NSW SES: Emergency Response ‘Reimagined’

ORGANISATION: NSW State Emergency Service (SES)
SPOKESPERSON: Robbie Landon, Capability Coordinator Rescue
WEBSITE: www.ses.nsw.gov.au

The NSW State Emergency Service (NSW SES), which offers frontline assistance and rescue services in response to storms, floods, tsunamis, road trauma, and so much more, is ‘reimagining’ its structure. Not only is the service creating new classifications of volunteers, but it is also deepening its involvement with broader cross-sections of the community and strengthening its capabilities with a progressive attitude towards outdoor power equipment (OPE). JOHN POWER profiles this immensely important volunteer-based organisation.

Whenever there is a major natural disaster, severe weather event or serious road accident, a local NSW SES Unit is never far away. Actions from one year to the next might include clearing fallen trees from roadways, searching mineshafts for missing persons, extricating people from car wrecks, or removing debris from flood-stricken streets.

Few people realise, however, that the NSW SES members who perform these challenging activities are volunteers: people from all walks of life who maintain the highest professional standards thanks to effective training, high-quality apparatus, and well-defined role descriptions.

In this article we speak with Robbie Landon, NSW SES Capability Coordinator Rescue/Operational Capability Branch, who reveals the inner workings of the organisation.

Every State operates its own State Emergency Service. In NSW the organisation comprises approximately 300 employed personnel who oversee and support more than 9,000 volunteers.

Table 1Traditionally, the organisation has adhered to an expanding management structure – a State Headquarters (SHQ) central office in Wollongong has overseen 17 regional offices, which in turn have supported more than 250 volunteer Units. There are also several State headquarters-based specialist Units. However, Robbie says, major reforms are underway to streamline operations and respond to the changing face of volunteerism throughout the State. These reforms, formalised under the banner of Volunteering Reimagined, include a reduction in the number of regional zones from 17 to 5 specific zones; as well as the creation of four separate membership classifications (see Table 1), paving the way for a more flexible mix of member contribution styles and capabilities.

Broadly speaking, Unit volunteers will perform traditional ‘all-rounder’ functions across their Local Government areas. Community Action Team Volunteers will be formed within smaller communities, providing services according to locally specific needs.

Corporate volunteers can be utilised to support a range of functions, from IT and media to the provision of team leadership. Spontaneous volunteers will be able to offer their time and service in the event of emergencies with roles such as sandbagging.

Given the increasing diversity of members’ skills, ages and talents, all matters relating to OPE – including the procurement of fit-for-purpose gear, operational training, OH&S, as well as equipment maintenance – are more important than ever.

As might be expected from the diversity of membership classifications, not all NSW SES volunteers carry out identical tasks. Indeed, Unit profiles at a local level can vary dramatically depending on terrain, population size and climate – a regional NSW SES Unit in the remote Blue Mountains might differ greatly from another in metropolitan Newcastle.

These differences are reflected in divergent core competencies of Units across the State (fully accredited by the State Rescue Board of NSW), involving clearly defined relationships with other agencies like NSW Police.

“For example, as part of Rescue we have 76 accredited general land rescue units recognised under the State Rescue Board, and they provide immediate response to life-threatening accidents and incidents across the State 24/7,” Robbie explains. “And on top of that we have over 113 accredited Flood Rescue Units under the State Rescue Board, which provide immediate response to flood rescue across the State, with this service continuing to grow.”

NSW SES further provides a range of other capabilities including Community First Response Units (CFR) within rural and remote communities to support Ambulance NSW, Storm and Flood response, Land Search, Alpine Search and Rescue, Remote Area Search, and Large Animal Rescue: all specialized capabilities developed in support of local communities.

These hugely variable roles and capabilities of the State’s many SES Units, combined with the growing diversity of its volunteer base, mean the service must pay very careful attention to the selection of its powered equipment.

At any given time NSW SES possesses thousands of items of OPE, including generators, chainsaws, pole saws, pumps, and an array of hydraulic gear such as spreaders and cutters used mostly for road accident rescue.

All items must be dependable, highly effective, relevant, and suitable for males and females with different physiques and various levels of experience, strength and stamina.

In order to ensure the right equipment is available to members, the Service adheres to a strict procurement process involving Submission, Assessment, Proof of Concept and Approval. Initial submissions, Robbie notes, are inclusive and democratic, requiring the lodgment of a single-page form to a regional office or SHQ outlining the proposed advantages of the product. Most submissions come from individual volunteers who believe a particular new piece of equipment might be an asset to the Service.

The entire procurement process is overseen by the Approved Equipment and Clothing Group (AECG), which includes members of the four pillars of NSW SES, namely Operations; Training and Logistics; Procurement; and Work, Health and Safety.

Once the above steps have been completed successfully, which might take four-six months, an item of equipment can be added officially to a statewide NSW SES register of approved items – an Approved Equipment List (AEL). See Table 2 for selected examples of equipment on the AEL.

“This consideration leads to a second list, the Vehicle Equipment List (VEL), which determines how many of these approved items or widgets are actually on each truck,” Robbie said.

This means that each Unit in the field has equipment identified and loaded onto vehicles to meet locally specific capabilities, with variations based on ‘environmental scans’ within the communities to determine specific equipment that may be needed to respond to emergencies and threats in these areas. NB: there are three different truck sizes aligned to capabilities under Storm & Rescue (light, medium and heavy), which respond to both storm and rescue callouts. Heavier vehicles tend to use heavier-duty styles of equipment, delivering broader capabilities.

Strong Unit-level customization is new for NSW SES, which until recently rolled out more standardized, ‘one size fits all’ inventories of equipment to all Units across the State, regardless of terrain or the perceived local relevance of the gear.

“But now the organisation is moving to an approach where we have a ‘foundation standard’ of equipment,” Robbie said. “We’re doing better now at going through a process of assessing what the specific risks are in each community.” So, he elaborates, instead of equipping every Unit with a specific Artificial High Redirection Frame (AHD), for example, such specialist pieces of kit are now distributed only to Units working in steep areas or where wells and shafts might exist. Unit-specific customization even extends to the needs of individual members, who might require specific harnesses, field clothing or safety gear, for instance.

When OPE products are being assessed for adoption into the AEL, Robbie says there are numerous criteria for selection. These include:
1. Is the tool fit for purpose?
2. What are the safety attributes of the tool?
3. What levels of training are required (from Category 1: simple familiarization, to Category 2: some formal training required, or Category 3: high-level mandatory training)?

Furthermore, he adds, there is an increasing focus on the practicality of equipment, recognizing that ease of use, lightness of weight, as well as comfort are of vital concern to members, particularly during drawn-out operations.

As a result of these concerns, Robbie says there has been a shift in favour of battery-powered OPE across many ranges. “Generally, the future is battery tools,” he said. “So about four years ago, for example, we started bringing e-DRAULIC rescue tools [i.e. electrically powered hydraulic ‘jaws of life’ spreaders, rams, etc.] as a Proof of Concept into the organisation and then started rolling these out.”

Both conventional and e-DRAULIC items of equipment remain in service today, Robbie says. However, whereas a conventional spreader might require hose reel connection to a 70kg pump, a battery-powered e-DRAULIC system allows for lightweight and instantaneous function without any discernible reduction in performance. At present most hydraulic rescue equipment consists of Lukas products supplied under contract by P.T. Hydraulics Australia.

Battery-powered OPE is also affecting categories like chainsaws and handheld power tools: “We have powered chainsaws but we’re also starting to see electric chainsaws coming in because they provide the same functionality with less weight, less fuels on our trucks, and less need for cabins with vents.”

Most equipment on the AEL is generic, though some items like generators are made especially to NSW SES specifications; Powerlite is the current provider of AEL generators.

NSW SES is always pleased to hear from manufacturers who wish to showcase new equipment. Demonstrations are also welcome at events like the annual State Disaster Rescue Competitions (SDRC) or Australian Road Rescue Association (ARRO). Procurement occurs mostly at a regional and State level, though Units can also take care of emergency replacement acquisitions and locally relevant purchases.

Maintenance protocols occur on three levels throughout the organisation, involving (a) regular inspections by members, (b) six- and 12-monthly tagged inspections of major operating systems, as well as (c) annual inspections/repairs by an
external provider.

All members are trained in the safe useage and maintenance of principal equipment as part of their overall instruction.

With its refreshed volunteer base, close eye on equipment innovation, and clearcut procedures for adopting new items onto the AEL, NSW SES is in a powerful position to augment its vital public services while attracting more volunteers.

The aim is to increase volunteer numbers to 20,000 in coming years, further raising the value of this already crucial organisation.

John Power is a freelance journalist based in Cherokee and Carlton, Victoria, and a former editor of Power Equipment Australasia.