There is an age-old question that arises during the real-time management of natural disasters: to what extent should responses be in the hands of trained personnel in emergency management agencies, and to what extent can we rely on the efforts of private citizens acting on their own?
This question came to the fore during the massive flood at Lismore from February 28 to March 1. That flood was not only the biggest seen in the city's 170-year history, it reached far, far higher than anybody there had ever seen. The previous record height, established in 1974, was exceeded not by a little but by more than two metres, and the CBD's levee was overtopped by a considerable margin. Old dwellings never previously flooded took in water, and some two-storey properties were flooded into their upper levels.
Well-ensconced property-protection measures were rendered largely ineffective by the speed of the flood's rise and the level the water reached.
The flood at Lismore, and in the downstream communities of Coraki, Woodburn and Broadwater, caused huge problems for responders as it developed. Because of the scale of the flooding, some of Lismore's State Emergency Service volunteers could not get to their floodboats to check on people's safety and rescue those who were in danger.
In any case, the Lismore SES could not possibly have had enough local boats and trained crews to manage the scale of the task at hand. Thus the call went out on the night of February 28 for private citizens with their own boats to undertake rescues.
That call was soon rescinded, presumably on safety grounds: there were fears that encouraging these "informal" rescuers, not all of whom had lifejackets, might lead to their own deaths in the dangerous conditions of the moment. Their boats were not all well fitted to the task, unlike the specially designed craft operated by the SES, and they lacked communications equipment.
But the rescission came too late. Perhaps as many as 20 tinnies were already on the water in Lismore and rescuing people from flooded buildings. Some residents were in ceiling cavities, others on roofs. A few could not get up high, and in fact three elderly Lismore people drowned inside their dwellings that night.
It is impossible to know how many people were saved from death by volunteer citizen rescuers who were not members of the SES. Probably there were several. And there can be no doubt that the rescuers placed themselves at great risk. Some may eventually receive medals for bravery.
There is a real conundrum surrounding the use of "private" rescuers. For decades, residents in their own boats have helped their neighbours during floods. They have checked on people's wellbeing and delivered staple food items and medications, and they have ferried many to safety.
Some people have died in the process of providing help to neighbours in need, in boat accidents and while relocating property from houses about to be flooded or with water already inside them. Such deaths are obviously tragic, but the risk of harm is hard to avoid completely. After all, we want individuals and communities to "own" the floods they face, and not to be totally reliant on official responses by agencies like the SES. Self-help is vital, and good-neighbourliness is an essential feature of a civilised society.
When bushfires rage, that also means not expecting that a fire truck is guaranteed to show up outside your home. Likewise it means being responsible for (and disciplining) the vegetation on your own property: this is necessary because of the threat of fire and the potential for storm activity. Trees growing too large next to houses bring danger when they are struck by lightning or wind and come down on dwellings. Every storm season sees instances of this, and deaths sometimes result.
As far as flooding is concerned, we need to have people not needlessly enter floodwaters. This remains the major cause of deaths in Australia during flood time, and people have been alarmingly resistant to media messages imploring them not to drive into floods. Those who get into trouble are often rescued by bystanders who see the problem and respond: the emergency services obviously cannot be on hand immediately.
It is 150 years since the first locally based volunteer flood agencies were formed in NSW to perform rescues. These were the "water brigades" that took root between 1869 and the mid-1870s in communities on the Hawkesbury River (Windsor, Cornwallis and Pitt Town) and the Hunter (Maitland and Morpeth). Other river communities, including Grafton, formed brigades later.
Lasting into the 20th century (indeed, at Grafton, until 2000, when the last brigade joined the SES), the water brigades were forerunners of the SES units established after the many great floods in NSW during the mid-1950s. Of these, the floods of 1954 in the Northern Rivers and those in 1955 at Maitland and elsewhere in the Hunter were the most devastating.
What we have seen over decades is the formalisation of rescue activity in times of flooding. It began at the local level, with little support, but gradually more and more government investment was provided. In the case of the water brigades this meant local councils paying for rowboats and for the sheds that housed them. Later, with the founding of the SES, the state government provided purposefully designed powered floodboats, radios and rescue training for SES members.
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Standards were set. In the case of some of the water brigades in the late 1800s, only single men were permitted to crew floodboats. This was to avoid the risk to married men who were family breadwinners: their contributions were restricted to managerial roles. In the SES that prohibition was never applied, but efforts were made to minimise the risk to crews, and of course to the passengers (often pregnant women, small children, the sick and elderly) they were rescuing.
Obviously the SES cannot guarantee it will be able to rescue everybody who needs it, or to conduct rescues in the usually short time available. At Lismore there was criticism of the agency for being "absent" when it was most needed. This criticism was understandable, but the difficulty the SES's volunteers had in getting from their homes to their floodboats through flooded streets must be noted. And it needs to be recognised that, at moments of extreme flooding, no agency will have sufficient boats, crews and other operatives to meet the scale of the urgent demand for rescue and other forms of assistance.
We cannot stop people from helping during times of crisis. Nor should we try. What we must do, at a minimum, is have on hand caches of lifejackets for non-SES rescuers. We must also convince people who live in flood-liable locations that extreme and very dangerous floods do occur and must be respected and prepared for. They might be infrequent, but they are inevitable.
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