By Peter Douglas
The Emerald SES unit is officially the hardest-working team in Victoria, after ranking first in the state in 2016 for attending call-outs for assistance.
Due largely to the 9 October windstorm, during which the unit attended about 500 call-outs, the crews racked up an incredible 1444 call-outs last year, putting them well above the around 1200 call-outs of their nearest rival.
For a team of about 20 active volunteers, with about the same in reserve, that’s an average call-out rate of more than 27 per week.
The Emerald unit has one of the largest areas to cover in the state, which takes in 22 CFA units.
The Victorian SES, Minister for Emergency Services James Merlino, as well as Shadow Minister for Emergency Services Brad Battin, were among those who praised the volunteers’ level of dedication.
Mr Merlino said the crews led by example.
“Congratulations to Emerald SES on their number one ranking in Victoria to responding to calls for assistance,” Mr Merlino said.
“Completing 1444 call-outs in 2016 is an incredible achievement and it sets a high standard for the entire state.
“This is an SES unit at the top of its game, and each and every volunteer should be proud of the work they do, keeping the community safe.”
Counterpart Mr Battin said the tally represented seven per cent of call-outs from across Victoria.
“Unit controller Ben Owen continues to praise all volunteers in his unit, who are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week – with no financial gain,” he said.
Mr Owen told the ‘Mail’ the unit was traditionally one of the highest ranking in the state, but he never believed they would see 1400 call-outs.
“About three years ago, we hit the 1200 mark, but I never thought 1400 was possible,” he said.
“The 9 October windstorm put us all under significant pressure, but we really stepped up to the challenge.
“We have an incredible team, just last night four volunteers jumped out of bed at midnight to attend a call-out … they did that without blinking an eye.
“That’s the kind of dedication they have.”
Despite the achievement, the Emerald SES Unit says it continues to battle substandard facilities.
Presently, they are trying to raise $118,000 to replace the 15-year-old storm truck.
Fund-raising has proven difficult in the past, due to problems raising funds in outer areas such as Belgrave and Upwey, despite the unit covering these towns.
Also, the unit said the Victorian Government has still not allocated any money for the SES, although they are in a 30-year-old, sub-standard shed.
Mr Battin said the unit is in dire need of help.
“New funds are desperately needed to upgrade the current unit, which is housed in a leaky tin shed that failed to meet SES safety standards,” he said.
“Conditions are so poor that the unit can’t provide their volunteers with a hot meal between call-outs, and antiquated systems hamper response times.
“Portable toilets, a makeshift workshop and old shipping crates have all been added to the site to help met the community’s needs, but it’s not enough.”
Mr Battin said it was time for the Victorian Government to honour a $1.8 million commitment made to the unit at the 2014 State Election.
“In our term in government, I was proud to work with the Emerald SES team to review plans and get a commitment to build this vital piece of infrastructure to support the local community,” he said.
However, Mr Merlino said the unit did have government support.
“The volunteers in Emerald are doing a fantastic job protecting the Dandenongs and I’ve met with them personally a number of times to talk about their needs,” he said.
“The government is right behind them and I can assure you we are working with the Victoria State Emergency Service to develop sustainable funding arrangements for all operations and facilities.
“This is disgraceful behaviour from the Member for Gembrook.
“The fact is when Brad Battin was in government, and had the opportunity for four years to support Emerald SES, he did absolutely nothing.”