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An emergency incident response over the Queen’s Birthday long weekend in June was the largest co-ordinated and resourced search and rescue operation in the history of Surf Life Saving Illawarra. The combined response from multiple clubs in the Illawarra branch, which saw over 75 Surf Life Saving personnel working together over a two-day period, has won the Surf Life Saving NSW Rescue of the Month Award for June 2020.

At approximately 6.15pm on Saturday 6 June, Surf Life Saving Illawarra (SLSI) responded to a report that several people were in the water, north of the Bulli Surf Life Saving Club, screaming for help. Surf Life Saving Illawarra Duty Officer, Anthony Turner along with the Bulli SLSC Emergency Call Out Team were immediately mobilised to the location to provide on-water and ground support to other emergency service agencies. 

Officers from Wollongong Police, with assistance from the Marine Area Command, PolAir Helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft, the Ambulance Helicopter, Marine Rescue, Surf Life Saving Illawarra Duty Officers and Bulli SLSC members commenced a major search and rescue operation.

At 6.45pm, the Ambulance Helicopter confirmed that several people, including a five-year-old boy, were in the water with an overturned boat. 

The helicopter crew winched two people aged 31 and 23 to safety - both conscious and breathing. They were immediately transported to Wollongong Hospital in a stable condition. 

Conditions at the time were challenging for surf lifesavers because it was dark and the search pattern extended over a large area. There was a five knot westerly wind blowing, a full moon and moderate, 1.5 metre surf.

A dye pack was released by lifesavers to establish the movement of the current so that they could determine the drift pattern to aid the search for the remaining missing people. SLSNSW Duty Officer Lachlan Pritchard assumed status in the command centre during this period along with Illawarra Director of Lifesaving and Duty Officer Daren Weidner. 

Due to low fuel levels, the Ambulance Helicopter was unable to continue searching. Under the direction of Police Chief Inspector Darren Brown, an inflatable rescue boat (IRB) was deployed with two crew members on board.

After a risk assessment was conducted, the IRB crew  assisted with the on-water search when the capsized boat was located by Marine Area Command. 

The vessel was towed by Water Police to the base at Port Kembla Harbour, where police found the body of the missing five-year-old boy. Tragically, he had been trapped when the vessel overturned.

The search was suspended at approximately 11:20 pm due to difficult weather conditions and a briefing and meeting was conducted with all key services to plan for the resumption of the search the following morning.

The search resumed early the next morning for a missing 28-year-old male. Surf Life Saving Illawarra deployed IRB and RWC (jetski) crews to search the coastline from Austinmer, Thirroul, Sandon Point, Bulli (in the North) to Woonona and Bellambi (in the south). The SLSNSW State Operations Centre (SurfCom) provided coordination throughout the search operation.

SLSI UAVs (drones) were utilised in the search efforts.  Duty Officers Turner, Pritchard, Evert and Weidner were embedded in the command post and were assisted by Bulli SLSC call out co-ordinators Jamie Caldwell and Maria Caldwell (SLSI Director Member Services).

The Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter was tasked to conduct multiple sweeps of the area and Marine Rescue, Water Police and NSW maritime continued their search.

At approximately 1.10pm, a Marine Recue vessel identified a body in the water near Corrimal and Water Police assisted in transferring the body back to shore.

All assets were stood down and a debrief for all agencies involved in the operation was conducted at Bulli Surf Life Saving Club. There were approximately 40 people in attendance.

Joel Wiseman, SLSNSW Director of Lifesaving, said that  Illawarra Support Operations and its club call-out teams were invaluable in the search and rescue operation and took the lead in providing on-water assistance to NSW Police (the lead agency) in their endeavours to locate missing people.

“The professionalism, teamwork, skill and leadership of Surf Life Saving members meant NSW Police had full confidence in our response,” Joel Wiseman said.

“As the Director of Lifesaving, I received multiple phone calls during the search from Incident Commanders, State Duty Officers, the Illawarra Branch President and Director of Lifesaving in relation to the response and I have to say the chain of command and leadership displayed by all on the ground was nothing short of exceptional,” said Joel Wiseman.

Bulli SLSC hosted a Forward Command Post and the club provided emergency services with all equipment required to ensure a seamless search and rescue operation. Local businesses dropped off food and thanked volunteers and emergency services personnel for their efforts.

Feedback from NSW Ambulance and Police was that SLSI’s services, equipment and professionalism in co-ordinating such a large-scale search was of a professional standard and that Surf Life Saving NSW is a highly competent emergency service and are experts in their field. 

Peter Evert, Surf Life Saving Illawarra President, said that in the branch’s first full season as an emergency services organisation, the search and rescue operation was a great example of a multi-club, multi-agency, co-ordinated response from their support operations and club call-out teams.

George Shales, Surf Life Saving NSW President, congratulated Surf Life Saving Illawarra Support Operations on their Rescue of the Month award and for the professionalism shown over the two-day search and rescue operation.

Surf Life Saving NSW extends its condolences to the family and friends of the two people who tragically lost their lives in the incident.

Volunteers involved in the Illawarra search and rescue operation were: Anthony Turner (on call SLSI Duty Officer), Lachlan Pritchard (Duty Officer), Daren Weidner (SLSI Director of Lifesaving/Duty Officer), Peter Evert (SLSI President/Duty Officer), Bulli SLSC Emergency Call-Out Team under the direction of Jamie Caldwell (Club Coordinator), Markus Meier-Lindner (Bulli SLSC Team Leader), Keith Caldwell (Bulli SLSC President) and a further seven club members.  These members assisted in the ongoing search activities throughout the evening. 

The SLSNSW Rescue of the Month aims to recognise excellence in lifesaving. Each month a ‘Rescue of the Month’ is awarded at state level for the most outstanding rescue performance for that period. Monthly winners have the chance to win the National Rescue of the Month and become finalists for the SLSNSW Rescue of the Year which is presented at the annual Awards of Excellence. Laerdel are proud supporters of Surf Life Saving NSW. Rescue of the Month winners receive Laerdel gift vouchers as recognition of their achievements. Twelve prizes are awarded annually.

Surf Life Saving Illawarra was awarded the SLSNSW Rescue of the Month for June 2020.


Friday 24 July 2020