Our SES groups defy decline

LOCAL State Emergency Service volunteer numbers are at an all-time high in defiance of a statewide decline blamed on bureaucratic red tape.

State media reported at the weekend that around 5800 - nearly half of all SES volunteers - had thrown in the towel since 2005, fed-up with unreasonable training and safety demands.

But Warwick SES controller John Newley - who has racked up nearly 35 years of service - yesterday said local numbers were better than ever as the region stares down the barrel of another spring and summer of wild weather in the form of bushfires and electrical storms.

Mr Newley said the Warwick group currently had 35 active members, with the December and January floods bringing an influx of around half a dozen newcomers.

"We've had people come forward who've said they'd been meaning to join up for a while but had never got around to it," Mr Newley said.

"We work on the rough formula of one volunteer for every thousand residents, so when you look at Warwick's population we are pretty much on the money there.

"Our numbers got down to around 12 at the lowest point in the last decade, but we've done recruitment drives.

"I'm very comfortable with where we're at just now."

Some country SES groups, such as Jandowae and Dalby, are reportedly down to as few as five active members with group leaders critical of safety procedures, such as being required to count out loud the number of steps on a ladder as they descend it.

Other volunteers have voiced frustration at what they see as unnecessary training, with their trades skills not recognised by the SES.

Mr Newley said safety was critical and said coming down a ladder in the dark during heavy rain entailed a risk.

He said being an SES volunteer only took up around two and a half hours of their time each week.

"Volunteers go through a three-month probation where they received basic training and they have to meet ethical standards such as not holding a criminal record," he said.

"It's also a time in which they can judge for themselves whether the SES is for them or not.

"Full training is then completed over another three months and the option is there for volunteers to undertake separate specialised training, such as flood boat operation and vertical rescue.

"But we have other volunteers on our books who just turn up when a disaster's happening and do basic tasks like filling sandbags and cleaning flood debris out of homes."

Mr Newley said of the 35 full-trained SES members in Warwick, eight were specialised flood boat or roof operators and 20 had put their hand up for some form of extra training, but were not obliged to do so.

"Obviously if we get a new piece of equipment people have to be trained in its use," Mr Newley said.

"There are other things the SES does that most people don't realise, like refuelling rescue helicopters at Warwick Hospital."

Stanthorpe SES controller Max Hunter said his numbers were likewise at the highest he could recall, with 15 active on the books.

He conceded the ideal number for Stanthorpe would be closer to 20.

"We've been down to as few as seven, but a lot of it (numbers declining) is natural attrition," he said.

"For example, we get a certain number of young members who leave town after finishing school to go off and study or work elsewhere.

"But some of these come back to the SES when they return to Stanthorpe later on.

"We've never had anyone leave in anger or throw their hands up in the air - we are a pretty laid-back sort of a group and we apply common sense to our training, while recognising safety is paramount.

"Health and safety and liability issues have certainly come to the fore a lot more in recent times, I just think you need to keep things in perspective.

"The Toowoomba regional supervisors are realistic and let the local controllers around here make their own decisions."

Mr Hunter said even the Wallangarra SES sub-group had 13 active members, despite being such a small community.

He said the SES was audited annually and members who didn't turn up on a regular basis were not counted as "active".

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