Full-time volunteer and local legend Gerry Burnage of the Ballina SES has been nominated for the Rotary District and Clubs of NSW Emergency Services Community Awards (RESCA).
Four finalists in each category were recently announced, with the selection committee this year receiving the highest number of nominations in the five year history of the awards.
Echonetdaily asked Gerry Burnage how he felt about the nomination. ‘I’m really humbled by it,’ he said. ‘It’s meaningful just to get nominated. To be a finalist is fantastic.’
Ballina-on-Richmond Rotary Club President Dave Harmon said, ‘Gerry’s selfless, and nothing’s too much trouble. Col and I, we’ll sit down at a meeting with him and say this is what we’ve got planned, it’s always “not a problem, we’ll do it.” He’s never once said no.
‘Everyone holds him in high esteem, especially our Rotary Club.’
Rotary’s Col Lee said, ‘This is a very successful SES branch, because of the way Gerry trains his people, the commitment he gets, and most important his manner with these people – they just respect him so much. Because of the way he works and operates, the respect he has from his volunteers, plus the town, is just absolutely outstanding.’
From England to Ballina
Originally from the UK, Mr Burnage has been with the Ballina SES since 1984.
‘I joined because I wanted to pay back to the community,’ he said. ‘This area adopted me in 1975.
‘When I started with the SES there were just twelve of us, it was very basic. We were a small group, doing what we could, at road crashes and things like that.
‘But we’ve built up the unit, and we’ve got vehicles now thanks to all these service clubs. Rotary have always been a big support.
‘Now we’re got around a hundred people involved, and we’ve got a lot waiting to join and learn new skills. It’s developed into a very professional organisation. There’s a lot of training. You’ve got to be qualified to do whatever you do.’
Under Gerry Burnage’s command, the Ballina SES now has 38 members under 25.
‘We started our Yettes program five years ago, which developed from the cadet program, and we bring all the high schools together,’ said Mr Burnage. ‘They nominate three kids from each school, and we take them on and mix them all together in a ten week course.’
Mr Burnage has seen more than his fair share of major incidents and disasters. ‘We had the Lennox Head tornado, all the North Coast floods, lots of local storm events, big events, major road accidents, lots of different things,’ he remembers.
Little things matter too
Mr Burnage said that there are a lot of elderly people in Ballina, ‘so there’s lots of things that we do. Our crews go above and beyond what’s expected of them.
‘If people have problems we like to help them as much as we can, and clean up for them, they’ll even mop the floor when water’s come in, which isn’t really what we’re expected to do.’
At the other end of the scale, major road accidents bring trauma for rescuers. Echonetdaily asked how the SES helps its members cope.
‘We have what we call the CIS (Critical Incident Support) Program,’ Gerry explained.
‘We have peers – there are three in our unit trained to support people. We often help each other from other units. It’s not always good to go to someone from your own unit. But on top of that we have a chaplaincy service, and he looks after the North Coast here.
‘It’s not about the religion part,’ he said. ‘The chaplain is excellent at debriefing or defusing as they call it these days, tremendous. But we work together, particularly the road crash team. They talk together and understand each other.
‘Every time there’s a bad one we’ll ring everyone up for two or three days, make sure they’re okay. We’ll bring everyone together. But we also have the service of the state as well.’
Service in the genes?
Mr Burnage said, ‘My mother was an ambulance officer in London during WW2. She started the St John Ambulance Brigade in the local town where I was. My brother and I were patients, while we were all kids, getting tied up and thrown through windows. They practised on us! I think that’s probably where it came from.’
Although there is a waiting list at the moment, the SES is always keen to hear from new people who want to get involved. ‘Volunteering is great,’ said Mr Burnage. ‘You learn a lot of new skills and meet a lot of nice people, particularly crew people, because they’ve all got the same aim – they want to help.
‘It’s not a social club, it’s hard work, but we’re trying to have fun as well. We’ll have social days, and get-together, but there’s lots of disciplines in it. Road crash is a selected group, but we have flood boats, storm and water damage, the operational side of it all. We have so many different paths they can do.’
Thanks to Rotary
Mr Burnage paid tribute to Rotary and the other local service clubs for their support. ‘We wouldn’t have the gear that’s in those vehicles now without all the service clubs, but Rotary, constantly. These guys are fantastic.’
He sees an increasing need for the service of the SES as the climate emergency bites. ‘Yes there will be more and more need for us, with climate change.
‘We’re going to see more and more storm events and east coast lows. They’re no different to cyclones, it’s just this side of the Queensland border!
‘Tsunamis are a low risk, but we’ve planned for tsunamis,’ said Mr Burnage.
‘Education is the big thing with storms and floods. Be prepared, listen to the right information, get correct information. It’s no different to bushfires. If you live in a flood prone area, or a tsunami footprint, then you should have a plan.’
All about helping the community
Gerry Burnage’s SES group’s primary responsibility is Ballina Shire, but they also send members further afield to help other communities in need.
‘In emergency services, we all work together. Today we’ve got a search down in Brooms Head. We had two days out at Copmanhurst. We can send members anywhere in the state, out west, Blue Mountains, Canberra, anywhere.
‘People can always get in touch with the SES through 132 500. We have a call centre in Wollongong now. It’s quite a sophisticated process.’
In his years of service, Gerry Burnage has won many major awards, including the SES National Medal, Emergency Service Medal, Citizen of the Year for Ballina Shire and Volunteer of the Year for Ballina Shire. He is a NSW SES Life Member and an Honorary Life Member of St John Ambulance.
So what are Gerry’s chances of winning the RESCA and adding to his crowded mantelpiece? Rotary’s Col Lee thinks he has an excellent chance. ‘There’d be no one more deserving,’ he said.
The RESCA winners will be announced on 30 October.