SES Heros

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In light of the recent weather events affecting the Coffs Coast and beyond, FOCUS met up with Swift Water Rescue technicians Strider and Jo from Bellingen SES and Unit Controller Bill Roffey from Coffs Harbour City SES, to find out more about the amazing work SES volunteers carry out – and what drives them to do it.

Strider and Jo – Bellingen SES

What is your connection to the Coffs Coast?

S: I moved to the area in 2008, just in time to be stuck in the Coffs CBD during the April floods of 2009!

J: I have lived and worked in the Coffs region for 11 years. I moved to the area for the beautiful lifestyle; Bellingen is a great community to raise a family in.

How long have you been involved in the SES, and what made you want to volunteer?

S: I have been a member of the SES for 12 years. As a five year old, I was in a car that was swept off a flooded causeway. My father self rescued us, so maybe the SES was always a natural fit for me.

J: I’ve been a volunteer with Bellingen SES Unit for four years now. I wanted to give back to the community in some way and was attracted to the really interesting range of skills and education you can access.

What is the most rewarding part of being an SES volunteer?

S: When I am able to help an individual or organisation that, through no fault of their own, is affected by a flood or storm. That is a rewarding and powerful feeling.

J: I enjoy the satisfaction of doing something worthwhile for my community. It can be wet, cold and tiring, but it feels great to know that I have helped people and made a difference in their life.

How many volunteers does the Bellingen SES have, and what is your role in the team?

S: The Bellingen SES unit has about 17 active members of various ages and skill sets. I am currently the Bellingen SES Rescue Officer, which means I have oversight of our field teams and equipment.

J: I am a Team Leader and Swift Water Rescue Technician.

Can you tell us what a swift water rescue involves? When would this be used?

S: A swift water rescue is not primarily swimming to a stranded member of the public in swift water. That is our last option, as it is extremely dangerous! Our first and main method of rescue is swift water education. Our next avenue of recourse is to aid the person to self-rescue or use a boat or helicopter.

J: There are many situations that meet the criteria for swift water rescue; some common examples are retrieving people trapped in cars in floodwater and monitoring river conditions where people could be in danger.

What special skills and training does a swift water technician need?

S: An SES swift water technician is trained to an international standard, similar to the level that is undertaken by the NSW Ambulance rescue units and QLD Fire and Rescue teams.

J: Initially we need to pass a fitness and swimming test, then training in First Aid. Swift water rescue training has three levels in SES; we travel to Sydney and undertake an intensive program at the Penrith White-water Stadium. It’s important to understand how to assess risks and really get comfortable in wild water conditions. I also train regularly at the local swimming pool to maintain my water fitness.

The Coffs Coast and Bellingen especially is a high rainfall area. How often do floods happen, and in what ways does the SES help people?

S: The SES was created as a volunteer organisation to aid in storm and flood operations. The organisation has grown and is now the state wide tactical response unit to such events. Coffs Harbour and Bellingen Shires are prone to floods during East Coast Low pressure systems, often caused by the remnants of tropical cyclones that travel southwards from QLD into NSW.

J: We have had three floods in the past six months. We assist people in many ways during flooding: from providing information/warnings about the event, flood preparation tasks such as sandbagging, as well as food and fodder drops in longer term flood events and emergency flood rescue.

We have all heard the phrase “if it’s flooded, forget it”. How do people still get in trouble in floodwaters?

S: I urge all members of the public to adjust their travel plans when a storm or flood event is happening and then adjust them again if and when the situation changes. Don’t be afraid to stop, take a breath and reconsider your choices before continuing your journey.

J: Making good decisions during times of flooding requires an understanding of and respect for the dangers of floodwater. Submerged objects, the force of flowing water, damage to the road surface and pollution are some of the things that may be underestimated by people who enter floodwater.

We really encourage all members of the public to stay safe during flooding by staying out of floodwaters altogether.

Thanks Strider and Jo.

Bill Roffey – Coffs Harbour City SES

What is your connection to the Coffs Coast?

I have lived on the Coffs Coast since 1999. Initially looking for the “perfect” location, we started in Cairns and worked our way south. Why Coffs? Because we believed it had everything – a great climate, an airport and very friendly people.

How long have you been involved in the SES, and what made you want to volunteer?

I became a member of the NSW SES in 2005, after the tail end of a cyclone caused a lot of damage on the northern beaches of Coffs.

Born in a town of 2,000 in country Victoria, there was always a sense of community. So after seeing the damage caused by the weather and having time available, it seemed a natural thing for me to volunteer.

What is the most rewarding part of being an SES volunteer?

Helping other people, as well as having the privilege of leading an extremely dedicated, highly trained and professional group of volunteers who put themselves on call 24/7/365.

I have the pleasure of living in a holiday, so it has never been any effort to give back to Coffs Harbour what it gives to me.

How many volunteers does the Coffs Harbour City SES unit have, and what is your role in the team?

We currently have 60 active volunteers, and our Class of 2017 has 19 members who are about to commence their journey in the SES.

I am the Unit Controller. Having started with an aspiration to be nothing more than a gopher, I put my hand up while everybody else took a step back when they were looking for volunteers for the job.

What type of rescues do you carry out?

As the primary response organisation in Coffs Harbour (working in conjunction with the other emergency services) we are activated for road crash, vertical, animal and flood rescues. In addition, we also provide support to NSW Police for searches (missing people or evidence searches) as well as such things as gaining access to premises for medical emergencies or people trapped in lifts. We also assist with recovery of deceased persons if required.

When would you be called out to a road crash rescue?

When the occupants of vehicles are trapped by confinement or compression, the response team will extricate or release the casualty in conjunction with NSW Ambulance.

Some of the incidents we are called to can be quite confronting and traumatic for the rescue team, so one of my roles is to ensure the welfare of the rescue team and activate the SES Critical Incident Support team if required.

Can you tell us more about vertical rescue?

Vertical rescue is not for the faint hearted. Personally, I have never found a good reason to go over a cliff or down an abyss on a piece of rope. Nonetheless, other unit members have the intestinal fortitude to take this on. It is one of the specialist skills taught in the SES, and those undertaking it need to be reasonably fit and have some degree of a technical inclination.

With the number of tracks around cliffs in Coffs Harbour, there is always the probability that someone will err off the track – even animals such as dogs. If this happens, those qualified are activated to complete the rescue.

Do you need any special skills to become an SES volunteer?

None necessarily. Although, if you are planning a rescue role, a degree of physical fitness is required – particularly to swim the white-water rapids at Penrith for flood rescue.

The SES provides all personal protective clothing and equipment, as well as training, to members who complete the three month probation period.

What is expected of an SES volunteer once they join?

Dedication, commitment and most of all, professionalism. We are an emergency service that is responsible for a number of combat and support roles in the community. The SES has a Code of Conduct that all members must abide by.

Who can join the SES, and how should they go about it?

NSW SES Volunteers come from all walks of life, bringing with them many different skills, interests and backgrounds. Anyone who has an interest in the SES should investigate further by having a look at our website: under the Get Involved tab. Once an online application is submitted, someone from your local unit will be in touch.

How can people stay informed during emergency situations or extreme weather events?

Firstly – charge your devices and have batteries available for your radio.

For road closure information, visit or your local council webpage. For weather forecasts and warnings, visit:

Listen to local radio and ABC radio. Like and follow your local SES Unit’s Facebook page.

When and how should people contact the SES if they need help?

Contact the NSW SES for emergency assistance during floods, storms and tsunami on 132 500.

For life threatening situations, always call 000.

If you have a smartphone, it is very worthwhile to install a free app called Emergency + (iOS or Android). With one tap it will call 000 and provide you all the information (including your location and GPS coordinates) needed to be passed onto the operator.

Thanks Bill.

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