SES SOS: SES Lismore member Kelly Bohn left her home which suffered significant flood damage in order to assist others in the community due to the March floods caused by ex-Cyclone Debbie. Ms Bohn said she is disgusted by the nastiness of people who have blamed the SES for flood damage.
SES SOS: SES Lismore member Kelly Bohn left her home which suffered significant flood damage in order to assist others in the community due to the March floods caused by ex-Cyclone Debbie. Ms Bohn said she is disgusted by the nastiness of people who have blamed the SES for flood damage. Alison Paterson

SES copping the blame post-flood

DESPITE performing nearly 500 rescues during the March floods, 20 members of the NSW State Emergency Service Lismore Unit are about to hang up their boots.

An investigation by the Northern Star has revealed a spate of bullying and nastiness from a tiny but vocal section of the Lismore community, has some SES members intimidated and worried about wearing their uniforms on the street.

It's a vile state of affairs, considering during the emergency, the SES worked tirelessly and performed 498 rescues, dealt with thousands of requests for assistance, have been praised by the emergency services for their incredible community assistance and commitment, which included several members electing to help others while their own homes were devastated during the ex-tropical cyclone Debbie storm and flooding which devastated parts of the Northern Rivers in late March and early April.

If the local unit continues to lose members it will have an immense impact on the community as the SES are a key element of the region's emergency services.

As well as storm and flood work, the SES supports NSW Fire & Rescue, Rural Fire Service and Ambulance with Road Crash Rescues, undertake Vertical line rescues, Bush Search and Rescue, Body Recovery (with NSW Police) and evidence searches.

So if you are in a car accident, a tree hits your roof, or your home catches fire, then there is a good chance someone in an orange uniform will be there to assist.

This membership loss comes as 35 of 36 recommendations made from the flood review, completed by former NSW Police Deputy Commissioner Dave Owens and NSW SES Commissioner Mark Smethurst will be adopted by the agency.

SES Local controller for Lismore and Richmond Valley, Mel Mapstone, said it was a very stressful time for members whom she praised for their amazing commitment.

"We had had 10 members resigned and another 10 are thinking of it," she said.

"People need to understand in period of less than 48 hours, the Richmond Tweed Region Units received about 2400 Request for Assistance (RFA) and about 500 of these were flood rescues."

Ms Mapstone said the Lismore Unit which comprises 60 volunteers attended to around 871 RFAs in the Lismore LGA and of these 211 were Priority 1 Flood Rescues.

"A lot of the members felt like they were being blamed for the initial evacuation order of which they had no control over," she said.

"I don't know if the public understand how much SES give up with their personal lives, we had people sleeping on the office floors, in camp beds, catching rest where they could in between jobs where they pulled people out of houses and flooded vehicles."

She said too many people thought only of themselves.

"We were triaging all the jobs coming through on a risk-to-life basis," she said.

"This means someone with water two feet underneath their house was prioritised differently to someone having to climb up into their ceiling to escape rising flood water, such as in Goolmangar where people had to climb onto roofs."

Ms Mapstone reminded people SES members constantly worked long hours in difficult conditions during the disaster.

"Our members are being put at risk and having go out in floods and to car accidents," she said.

"They are dealing with the outcomes of these terrible instances and then to be abused is dreadful."

One of the unit's older members was also confronted by two abusive men in the Lismore CBD who shouted at him and accused him of not doing his job properly.

"This is a long-term member who has been assisting the community over many years and he was frightened and appalled by the behaviour," Ms Mapstone said.

"There are certain members of the public who did not appreciate you door-knocking," she said,

Ms Mapstone said the organisation did all they could to keep people aware of preparation options ahead of the disaster.

"It's been hard to engage the community, just a week before the flood came we held a forum in south Lismore with about 60 or 70 people attending," she said.

"A number have since said 'Thank God we went to the forum, we knew what to do when the water came'."

She said while the organisation had received praise from many people whom they helped, too many people chose to blame the members for issues over which they had no control.

"Our volunteers performed beyond what we and their communities should ever expect of them," she said.

Ms Mapstone said members who attended the post flood public forums felt very angry and betrayed.

"The no-answer strategy employed by the consultant facilitating the forums fuelled the anger of residents who did did not get answers they needed," she said.

"Some of our members were directly confronted at the forums wanting answers, but they were doing their jobs as directed and did not have access to those details."

For Lismore SES members Kelly Bohn, the bitterness from a tiny part of the community has been extremely difficult to hear, particularity as her own home was damaged while she was out assisting others.

Ms Bohn who lives near the SES unit building, spent Thursday morning at her bookkeeping job to ensure her clients pays were processed, before heading home to pack her won home and then pull on her uniform.

"We worked so hard and did our best to help people during the disaster," she said.

"After the floods, when I went into town to refuel our vehicles or stock up on supplies, I felt like I was a in a goldfish bowl and people were looking at me with disdain."

Ms Bohn said it's been a tough time considering while on duty, her own house was flooded 12m up to the first floor window sills.

Although she and her husband had packed and lifted items, the backwash from people's illegal use of jet skis in the flood water nearby caused the majority of boxes to be irretrievably damaged.

She said the insurance firm has been extremely unpleasant to deal with and they are still living elsewhere.

"It seems like you have fight tooth and nail with the insurance company to get anywhere," she said.

"Because of our location we took out flood cover, but the builder is in contention with the insurer so we are still in limbo."

While some of the long-term volunteers are thinking of leaving the orange uniform, Ms Bohn is staying put.

She said she believes in the SES, the work she and her friends do there.

Commissioner Mark Smethurst heard of the negative feedback, his first thoughts were for the volunteers whom he said had done a magnificent job.

A former Brigadier who commanded the special operations forces for the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan, Mr Smethurst said he was as impressed by members dedication as he was disgusted by reports of nastiness from the community to the Lismore SES, many of whom he met personally when he was in the region during the disaster.

"Their courage and tenacity was unbelievable," he said.

"They have a done a magnificent job and made an incredible contribution during these floods as they sacrificed their time from work and family to protect people, when their own properties and loved ones may have been at risk."

Commissioner Smethurst said he felt much the abuse came down to the fact of people not wanting to take responsibility for their own lack of preparation and trying to transfer guilt.

"Some people were under-prepared for this disaster," he said.

"But they need to remember the great work their SES volunteers did."

Mr Smethurst said the SES is also looking at how people can get involved and support their SES.

"We are going to over the next month, talk about different ways that people can be more flexible in joining the NSW SES."

Ms Mapstone said she and everyone at the SES headquarters in Lismore feel privileged to work with the volunteers.

"We are proud of working with these core members who when their pagers or phones signal an incident are still puling on the uniform and turning out to support and assist their community," she said.

"The SES motto, the worst in nature, the best in us, should be something we all aspire towards."


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