Volunteers for the State Emergency Service in Northern Rivers are quitting after being abused, spat on and assaulted in the wake of Cyclone Debbie.
Flood intelligence officer Lindsay Matterson, who has been part of the Lismore City Unit of the SES for 45 years, said he had been abused several times in the aftermath of the devastating floods that inundated the area in March and early April.
“I was accosted, abused, physically thumped in the chest,” Mr Matterson said.
He has also been sworn at and spat on.
“Some of our members for the first month or six weeks after the flood refrained from appearing in public in their uniform because it seemed to attract abuse.
“It wasn’t very pleasant. It shows you the small-mindedness of some people.”
Mr Matterson said SES resources were stretched to the limit during the crisis, with about 3,400 calls for assistance recorded and almost 500 rescues carried out.
However, he said some people thought they were evacuated too early, or were critical of the SES response time to callouts.
“One person who accosted me said ‘where were you when I needed help? You’re a waste of the space you take up and you should be ashamed of yourself’,’‘ Mr Matterson said.
Mr Matterson said others believed his unit had not responded properly with some accusing him of being ‘on holiday’, but he said the unit had not been given enough input to make decisions.
He said residents did not have adequate time in which to pack up.
“If it was left to me, I would’ve issued the pack-up order for the CBD to allow people to continue packing until midnight and then leave, but it was issued [just] six or eight hours in advance and that’s why people lost so much.”
Leave and resignations
Mr Matterson also said several younger members had taken leave because of the abuse.
“It’s more in-the-field staff, the younger members,” he said.
He said he could bounce back after negative behaviour, but the younger ones struggled with it.
SES Commissioner Mark Smethurst confirmed membership in some units on the NSW far north coast had fallen since the crisis.
“There has been a lot of ill feeling towards some of the SES members, and the membership has dwindled quite significantly,” he said.
Lismore Mayor Isaac Smith said he was devastated to hear of the resignations.
“It’s gutting, it’s absolutely gutting,” Cr Smith said. “These people worked so hard. So, so many hours.’‘
Cr Smith said he was at the Lismore unit during the crisis and it had seen a been a hub of activity where volunteers worked up to 14 hours at a time helping to rescue people.
Recommendations for improvement
Mr Smethurst said many of the issues that had angered residents had been addressed in an independent review of the SES released last week.
“To me there was no question that an evacuation was required, there were no errors made there, “ he said.
But he said details about the timing of evacuations and the overtopping of the Lismore levee were missing.
The review was undertaken by former Deputy Police Commissioner Dave Owens, who made 36 recommendations.
They included making the SES a recognised authority for land-use issues, especially in floodplain areas.
He also recommended a triage system for flood rescues, having a Bureau of Meteorology staffer in the State Operations Centre during major events, and finding a more suitable location for the SES Murwillumbah Unit.
The SES has backed 35 of the 36 recommendations, with the exception of a call for an extra community engagement officer in the Richmond-Tweed.
Mr Matterson said one of the most important lessons from the disaster was the need for greater respect for local knowledge.
He said local ‘‘feed-in information’‘ provided for incident controllers from outside the area was paramount.
“We have one of the most complex flood situations in NSW, and people who have lacked the experience of working through floods in this area just can’t comprehend how complex it is.
“Local input is going to be a vital part of the chain and they’re developing checklists where that will have to happen.”