Alex Barrell, the newly appointed Commissioner of IMRF Member Marine Rescue NSW (MRNSW) and one of the IMRF's newest trustees, says he has been fortunate to be part of maritime search and rescue (SAR) for his entire life.

Born and raised on Sydney's northern beaches and growing up loving the coastal environment, his father was heavily involved in the surf lifesaving movement as a volunteer, which led to his involvement from age five as a 'nipper', learning all about the surf and maritime environment before becoming a competitive swimmer and a surf lifesaver as a teenager.

On leaving school at 18, he became a professional lifeguard in Sydney, before travelling to Jersey in the Channel Islands to spend a summer as a professional Beach Guard.

This love of the water and sense of service led him to the New South Wales Police, after which he specialised in maritime policing and rescue through the NSW Police Divers and later the NSW Water Police.

Now at the helm of one of Australia’s largest SAR organisations, which provides a 24/7 volunteer marine search, rescue and communication service to support the state's 250,000 registered vessels and 500,000 vessel license holders, Alex is now tackling a number of ongoing challenges that are facing SAR organisations around the world.

"It is an absolute privilege and honour to be the Commissioner of MRNSW. Having spent the past 30 years of my professional life dedicated to the emergency rescue and maritime services, I am extremely humbled to be in this honoured position and am committed to the task ahead," he says.  

Credit: Alex Barrell/Marine Rescue NSW

According to Alex, one of biggest challenges facing maritime SAR today is the increasing demand in a time of decreasing volunteerism in terms of time available to serve, rising costs of infrastructure and assets and competing demands on government investment. 

“Our dedicated volunteers remain one of our most crucial assets. Members of the boating community need the confidence to know that when they call for help, a professionally trained and equipped crew from MRNSW will respond quickly.

“We are always looking to enhance our volunteering experience, not only for our more than 3,200 members but to increase that number and encourage more people to join our organisation,” he adds.

“Furthermore, we must also look to secure long-lasting investment in our organisation to support the NSW community better.”

In his new role as Commissioner and CEO of MRNSW, he will continue to enhance the organisation’s reputation and improve its assets and infrastructure across the State, working towards its recently released strategic direction to strive towards a 'One Marine Rescue'.

He will also be focusing on growing marine radio safety services to people and vessels operating within NSW coastal environments, estuaries, rivers and lakes, as well as the provision of the State's only Log On services to keep track of boats on the water and watch for their safe return.

Furthermore, he wants to continue promoting boating safety among the public as a Registered Training Organisation, which delivers purpose-designed training courses, along with localised advice from local communities, to ensure members and the community have the knowledge and skills they need to remain safe on the water.

Credit: Alex Barrell/Marine Rescue NSW

Alex also noted that the mental health and wellbeing of his SAR staff and volunteers is critical and is an issue that MRNSW is focusing more on.

"By nature of the work and the fact that we are a volunteer-based organisation with members from all walks of life, which brings different backgrounds and experiences, means in many aspects the risk of mental health challenges is only enhanced," he adds.

"The MRNSW is still predominately male and middle-aged, and that demographic has yet to be conditioned to place mental wellbeing at the forefront. Many members bring scars when they join MRNSW, having seen previous service in the military or professional backgrounds in the emergency and rescue sectors. This only increases the challenge for MRNSW in managing member wellbeing and promoting mental health initiatives across the organisations." 

MRNSW is taking active steps to improve its wellbeing culture, including the recent appointment of a dedicated Senior Manager of Health, Safety and Culture, promoting mental health programmes and initiatives, including the IMRF’s #SARyouOK? initiative, and more localised programmes from across the sector domestically. 

This includes having a dedicated process of undertaking After Action Reviews (debriefs) following significant rescue events or exposure to trauma incidents for its staff and members, and partnering with wellbeing support agencies that are trained to provide specialist care to first responders

"It is imperative to be partners with the IMRF, which provides a platform to share experiences and offer an opportunity to leverage off like-minded marine rescue organisations, take lessons, and promote our initiatives that could add value outside our jurisdiction," he concludes.