Women in Uniform

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Recently data was released confirming and highlighting that the hundred plus volunteer organisations around Australia are the backbone of the country. Put simply, without their dedicated voluntary hours, the country could not afford to provide hundreds of services the population accept as part of everyday life.

The team at Focus has highlighted many of these groups over the past two years, as we continue to recognise and salute their contribution to local communities and overall society.

One organisation which is served by more than 10,000 volunteers state-wide, and more than often taken for granted, are the State Emergency Services (SES), who serve all sectors of the community

The NSW State Emergency Service has expanded rapidly since it was established in 1955 (after many lost lives in the devastating floods in North-West New South Wales). In that year the State Government established a team of trained volunteers, combining a new State Emergency Service with the Civil Defence – which was established due to the political climate of the day.

The establishment of this team was an acknowledgement of the importance of local knowledge in assisting communities to overcome adversity.

This year the organisation celebrates their fifty-third anniversary, with the SES establishing its own identity in 1988. Today they have 228 units throughout the state, with the charter of being a community emergency and rescue service.

All members are trained in a series of specialised skills and regularly work with the NSW Police Force, NSW Rural Fire Service and the Ambulance Service of NSW. There is no doubt the SES has an abundance of versatility and has established itself as a major support service.

The primary roles of the SES are to assist during periods of floods and storms (including tsunamis), with their duties including warnings, evacuation, rescue, providing essential supplies to people isolated by floodwater, securing and covering damaged roofs, and removing fallen trees and branches from property.

They carry a huge responsibility across the state, and in country regions it is common to find the SES attending road accident rescues, providing essential support in major disasters, and search and rescue operations. They have an armoury of equipment that includes rescue vehicles, trailers, a fleet of boats and all the equipment necessary to carry out their duties.

Meet Jo Fischer and Karen Ralley

Meet Jo Fischer and Karen Ralley

These activities would lead most to believe that the units would be a male dominated domain, but this is not true.

How many times through jovial conversation have men been told … women have it over men when multi-skilling is required? You know the jokes; they begin to wear thin after a while!

One cannot argue that in today’s society there is plenty of evidence to prove these words of wisdom are true – particularly with women involved in many aspects of our lives and calling the shots.

For many years we were taught and probably believed that women were the ‘delicate’ species on Earth (guess I still do!). No argument from this scribe; however, after a barrage from the ‘delicate’ species, you are often left wondering who is tougher! One of the impossibilities in life is winning an argument with a woman!

In today’s world the ‘delicate’ species are recognised … they hold many senior positions in all walks of life, from governments to management roles. Today they head and are the driving force behind many important business and volunteer organisations.

In the Manning Valley there are three State Emergency Service (SES) units, with two controlled by prominent career women. These two ladies love life, are charming, feminine and dynamic leaders who would qualify for employment as jugglers, as they combine full time work, domestic duties, community awareness programs, SES training and can spring into action when their unit’s services are required.

The coordination of activities can often be managed while they work – designating duties to available personnel and, if required and depending on the situation, they may leave their place of employment to attend and oversee operations. If their active lifestyles leave you feeling exhausted, well … it doesn’t stop there. Both women attempt to squeeze into their week a few hours of a civil social life as well.

So who are these role models for our community?

Meet Jo Fischer: Taree Local Controller, and Karen Ralley: Harrington Controller, who are both dedicated to providing the best possible service to their respective communities.

Jo has the added responsibility of being the Local Controller of all Manning Valley units as well as heading the Taree unit, plus is the liaison officer with the Greater Taree City Council (who provide the housing and some financial assistance).

Born in Sydney, Jo spent her first 20 odd years living in Frenchs Forest on the northern Sydney beaches and headed to a career in hairdressing at the age of fifteen – a career that had her grooming the local population for 20 years.   Moving to the Central Coast for several years, Jo and her husband Alex decided that commuting to Sydney was becoming a toll and decided on a sea change.

They moved to Taree 15 years ago –arriving with the family car, furniture and three children. Since calling Taree home, the Fischers have added one more to their family. Husband Alex, a former tow truck driver, turned his hand to engraving and shoe repairs on the Central Coast and has operated a successful business in the Manning for the past 14 years.

Retiring the scissors and comb, Jo decided on a career change. She returned to the joys of study, where she gained a certificate in small business followed by qualifications and a diploma in social welfare and education. After working in the disability field for several years, today Jo is the youth coordinator at Mid Coast Youth Career Services, specialising in the transitional support for school students to the workforce.

As part of her commitment to the community, she joined the SES after experience with the Volunteer Rescue Association and was awarded a 10 year service medal several years ago.

“I joined the SES as I saw it as a great opportunity to help the community,” said Jo. “By nature, I love helping people.”

Jo Fischer has answered calls from outside the Manning Valley, assisting in the clean up after the Sydney storms of 1999 for six days. Inside the Valley, her unit has overseen many large operations – particularly in the year 2000 at Tallwoods, when it flooded, and during the Taree hail storms, where 80 jobs were logged.

The Taree unit consists of 50 members (ranging in age from 16 to 70 years) who meet every Wednesday evening for equipment maintenance and to enhance their training. It is a common occurrence for members to be in attendance on weekends at the depot, and they are often visible and donate their time within the community at functions and events.

The entire Fischer family is actively involved in the Taree unit, with husband Alex a rescue officer, and they are joined by their children and daughter-in-law as active members. Their eldest son James has been rewarded for his community mindedness, receiving the Young Achiever and Citizen of the Year awards on Australian Day 2008.

Jo Fischer has a large workload and added to her responsibilities last year. She was successful when the SES asked for an expression of interest from units across the state to conduct a cadet program.

“It was to gauge the feasibility of introducing a cadet training program within schools. We developed a model during last year. It was an awareness and education program with the view of recruiting.”

Chatham High School joined with Jo to begin the program, which provided the Taree unit with five new cadet members. The program provides an opportunity for students to be exposed to SES procedures, plus upon joining they learn new skills and gain an understanding of the value of a volunteer organisation within the community. Last year’s program was so successful, 30 cadet programs will be introduced across the state in 2009.

Jo Fischer and Karen Ralley in action

Jo Fischer and Karen Ralley in action

Karen Ralling is head of the newest SES depot in NSW – Harrington, which began operation in July 2007. Karen moved to the Manning Valley four years ago. Like so many others, she was seeking a lifestyle/sea change to add a little adventure to her life.

“Raising five children as a single mum, it was time to look for a change,” said Karen.

“I have children in Queensland, Sydney and Tasmania, so it is kind of a half-way point for visits and my travel.”

Spending her childhood in Sydney and attending Oyster Bay and Jannali Schools, Karen headed to her first year in the workforce with the Commonwealth Bank. Then she focused on her hobby, creative photography, before returning to the banking sector.

A move to the marriage ranks and a brief life in Mona Vale and Ruse hit hard times, and as a consequence Karen moved with her children, as a single mum, to the Southern Highlands for 15 years. Re-joining the workforce and finding a position at a newspaper on the outskirts of Sydney, the decision to move was timely, when she scored a vacancy at the local Manning Valley newspaper – Manning River Times.

“Everything fell into place; it worked out well.”

Living in a new environment and having a desire to meet and be involved in the local community, Karen answered an advertisement for a new SES unit in Harrington. Her only previous experience with a volunteer group was when she completed a rural fire course in the Southern Highlands.

“Living on the fringe of the bush, I wanted to learn how to protect my property. I never joined the Fire Service, because at the time I was involved with work and family duties. The SES ad seemed ideal to fulfill a desire be part of the community,” she said.

Enter Jo Fischer, who spent six months training Karen in the management modules, qualifying Karen to head the new SES unit (which also has ongoing training programs).

Beginning a new unit is always a challenge, as all new members have wide and varied backgrounds. The first few months were hard work. Blending a group of like minded, community oriented people can be a daunting task, as many have never been exposed to a regimented system – which is necessary to achieve excellence.

The building of the Harrington unit is somewhat comparable to the old BBC TV show, ‘Dad’s Army’, but with a different outcome.

“It has taken a while, but my team is very reliable. Training them all from scratch to meld a tight unit has been a challenge. They are dedicated, professional and love their volunteer job,” Karen said.

Starting a unit from scratch and then striving to become an efficient operation from the first day is a monumental task; the dedication and focus has to be one hundred percent, and errors can be costly.

“It can be testing sometimes. Finding members and then their niches is a huge job.”

If you think that the female chain of command ends there, you are incorrect!

Although there are many male members holding senior roles at both units, women fill many of the designated roles. At Taree the administration role is filled by Wendy Ruff, and the operations centre is managed by Jackie Gogerly.

“It is a good mix and we all work well together. I am lucky to have a good team,” said Jo.

At Harrington, second in command is Bronwyn Perrin, who is also a foundation member. Bronwyn works as a public servant and has spent many years volunteering in such areas as schools and in the general community. A long term resident of the Valley, Bronwyn spent long hours as a dairy farmer on Mitchell’s Island and in Wingham before heading with her surfboard to the seaside.

“Joining the SES was an easy decision,” said Bronwyn. “It gives a sense of purpose, helps the community, and it’s a good feeling.”

Bronwyn recently qualified to mentor students in the cadet program and will be a familiar face along with Jo Fischer in the now state-wide program.

Wendy Diggs is heading towards her 10 year service medal after beginning at Taree and joining Harrington as their media and community relations officer.

The oldest Manning Valley member of the SES is Charles Clifton, who will clock up 88 years this year. Charles purchased a home in Harrington in 1969 and has lived permanently in the area since 1981. The former upholsterer is still an active tennis player, who holds his own against most who swing a racket.

Charles has devoted most of his life to volunteer work and remembers helping the Civil Defense in 1953 during the Singleton floods. He has received a medal from the SES for his work, but his proudest possession is a certificate of recognition signed by the former President of America, Harry S. Trumann, during World War II.

Charles is also a member of the local advisory committee for the Greater Taree City Council and has no thoughts of retiring. His knowledge is priceless; he is an asset along with his other male colleagues: Rick, Tony, Craig and Wayne – all of whom recognise that Charles has had a huge impact on their lives since joining the SES.

The SES is an important part of society which has a huge influence, not only in emergencies, but in saving lives and generally making life pleasant for the community.

Having spent a few hours with the local units, our local ‘women in uniform’ have it all under control. If it is a flood, a fallen tree or an unsafe general situation, who do you call?

No … not Ghostbusters, but the SES on:

132 500.

Anyone can join the SES, and if you want to know more about becoming a volunteer member, call 1800 201 000.

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