The NSW State Emergency Service (SES) is an emergency and rescue service dedicated to assisting the community. It is a volunteer-based organisation providing emergency assistance to the people of NSW 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. 

Staffed by approximately 9,000 volunteers from across the state, the volunteers come from all walks of life, bringing with them many different skills, interests and backgrounds. They are united by the purpose of supporting their communities in times of need. 

While NSW SES’s major responsibilities are for flood and storm emergencies, NSW SES also provides the majority of general rescue effort in the rural parts of the state.

Please could you tell us a bit about your career to date, what are the key roles that you have held – what were the challenges, what were the highlights?

The last 20yrs+ have been a blast and I have been fortunate to have enjoyed going to work every day so far, something that I try to reflect on and appreciate as often as I can. 

I have recently been appointed Assistant Commissioner / Director Operational Capability & Training at the NSW State Emergency Service (SES). This is after seven very enjoyable years as the Deputy Commissioner at Marine Rescue NSW, four as Lifesaving Services Manager for Surf Life Saving NSW, and multiple other roles for Surf Life Saving in NZ back to the beginning of my paid career as a Lifeguard. 

Every leader likes to feel that they have made a lasting impact in a role. I have been fortunate to have worked for a number of organisations during periods of significant growth and development and have worked for leaders who have given me great opportunities to leave a legacy (which I hope I have done). 

What we achieved at Marine Rescue NSW in establishing a new emergency service would be a key career highlight, including the fleet modernisation, radio communications and training we implemented across the organisation.

The establishment (to pre-accreditation stage) of a new rescue Unit on Lord Howe Island in the middle of the Tasman Sea was also a very satisfying achievement and milestone to finish my time at MRNSW on. 

At SLSNSW a foundational project I am particularly proud of was ‘Project Blueprint’ - an unprecedented body of work whereby SLS Coastal Risk Auditors visited and risk assessed every single beach in NSW.

The positive impact this project, which was only completed last year, has had across signage/access, public education, effective safety and response planning, as well as through strengthened partnerships with local government and between rescue agencies is significant.

How long have you worked in maritime SAR? How did you get involved in the first place?

I obtained by SLS bronze medallion in 1994 at age 14, and to be completely honest, the availability of hot showers in the club house after a surf was the original attraction, but I must have loved it because I have been patrolling as a volunteer Surf Life Saver ever since (about to kick off my 27th season this year).

Over the years I have enjoyed time as a rescue swimmer on the helicopters, overseas lifeguard exchanges, being on the RWC teams etc – it’s been so much fun and such great comradery.

At age 16 I began working as a paid Lifeguard over the summers and things progressed from there to a supervisors role, then full-time manager roles with Surf Life Saving.

I cannot speak more highly of being a volunteer and how doing so has provided a gateway for my career and opened doors for me in life that I could have never imagined, both personal and professional.

Has maritime SAR changed over your career?

Yes, a lot, and mostly for the better. 

In the mental health area, the awareness and support provided to frontline and support personnel nowadays is worlds away from when I started in the 90’s (though there are still improvements we can and should be striving for today).

Some of the things we were being tasked to do as teenagers with limited follow up support, would just never happen now, which is great. 

The changes and positive impact of technology on timely asset tasking and incident response, multi-agency coordination, and safety is also amazing to reflect on. 

One of the challenges I think we all face as leaders is managing ever increasing administration and compliance requirements, particularly around WHS and training, and particularly within volunteer-based workforces.

Whilst improving safety, information management and standards is always a focus, balancing priorities between critical versus aspirational change, and the need to consider transitional change management and opportunity cost, has to be a factor in planning.

Making sure there is consistent, effective collaboration and engagement between the policy-writers and practitioners within an agency, and between the agency and government is key, and this is what I see my role chiefly responsible for.

Could you tell us a bit about your role as Assistant Commissioner, Director Operational Capability and Training, NSW State Emergency Service?

The NSW SES is an emergency service agency made up of around 10,000 volunteer personnel, 240+ units and 350 full time staff. We are the legislated combat agency for Storm, Flood and Tsunami in the state.

My role is chiefly responsible for leading our highly experienced teams in the development and implementation of our training frameworks and systems, as well as the ongoing development of our primary and supporting operational capabilities. 

You were awarded an emergency services medal in the Australia Day 2019 Honours List – what was that for and what does it mean to you?

It was unexpected but appreciated. No-one worth their salt gets involved seeking awards and recognition, but I enjoyed seeing the impact it had on my parents who travelled over from NZ to the ceremony at Government House in Sydney.  

I am very conscious of the fact that the achievements which underpinned the award were realised through a lot of hard work from many of my colleagues.

You were involved in the Australian wildfire emergency over the 2019-2020 spring/summer, what was your role and what was the situation like?

It was such a testing and tragic time for the entire state and country, the impact of such will be felt for a long time, and in some respects for ever, particularly for those communities and firefighters who were under threat and fighting fires for months non-stop.

The sheer scale of the loss of forests and wildlife is also impossible to fully fathom. We are globally witnessing a rapid and dangerous shift in extreme weather due to man-made climate change and our frontline SAR people and emergency management agencies are going to feel the impact of this more than most.  

The fire crisis did showcase strong joint-agency coordination and collaboration, with a lot of lessons learnt on the go.

As a support agency, Marine Rescue NSW provided a consistent amount of assistance to our firefighting combat agencies, through ongoing provision of communications personnel and Liaison Officers at the State Fire Operations Centre, as well as evacuating people from isolated beaches, transporting medical supplies and equipment to cut-off communities, and providing places of refuge in our bases/facilities.

What’s the biggest challenge for your organisation moving forward?

One of our greatest national assets is volunteerism, which is increasingly under threat due to competing priorities in a rapidly changing society.

Adapting to these changes and providing an increasingly flexible approach to volunteer participation whilst maintaining high standards is going to be an important priority.

Implementing effective tools and staff support which best enables volunteers to focus on what motivates them to be involved will be a core part of the solution.

What do you think the impact of COVID-19 will be?

Adapting to a new-normal is a challenge we all face as leaders in the SAR sector right now, including trying to define what that new normal should/can be given the unknowns and ever-changing situation and associated politics.

Managing the risk to service continuity will require consistent focus for some time to come.

Australia has been fortunate to-date controlling outbreaks and minimising spread within the emergency services, but it would only take a combination of bad-luck and relaxed vigilance for things to change quickly. 

Generally, COVID-related isolation has seen greater recognition of how much we actually enjoy and very much need in-person engagement with our colleagues and team members in the SAR sector.

On the training and exercising front we have seen a significant reduction in training activity due to a combination of restrictions and fear.

However, on a positive, this has forced a new approach and increased investment on flexible learning, particular e-learning which will benefit us long term.

Has women’s role in maritime SAR changed during your career? ie. different roles, more representation?

I believe so, though there is still much more work to do in this space. At MRNSW women made up 25-30% of personnel.

This is one of the highest rates in emergency services in NSW, which itself illustrates a significant opportunity still to be realised.

Obviously diversity is much more than just a  male/female thing, and I have been impressed by the initiatives in place and the commitment of NSW SES to improve workforce diversity in my short time with them.

Any advice to someone wanting to build a career in maritime SAR?

Back yourself and have a crack. If you doubt yourself, do it anyway, if other people doubt you, do it anyway.

Speaking from experience as an average student and skinny kid from rural NZ, if I had given my doubts and the doubters more oxygen than they deserved, I would have missed out on so much good stuff.

If the options are available to you, get involved as a volunteer – be it SLS, Marine Rescue, RNLI, etc.

You get out so much more than you put in, whether you are seeking a paid career in that space or not.

You are never too young, too old, or too inexperienced – there is a role for everyone.

How do you think the IMRF can add most value to the world of maritime SAR? 

By continuing to connect agencies and SAR practitioners and by being a conduit for information sharing is so important and will become even more important as we all emerge from our global isolation.

Facilitating greater levels of remote engagement given existing and continued limitations to international travel is a challenge which the IMRF is no doubt going to meet. 

With my regional hat on I think there is a great opportunity to strengthen IMRF-facilitated engagement and collaboration in the South Pacific/East Indian sectors, between NZ, AUZ, Indonesia and the South Pacific nations. 

Thank you very much.