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Nine specialists in Flood Water Rescue from Surf Life Saving Tasmania arrived in northern NSW last night and have already performed their first rescue – a man and his dog stranded on the back of a ute in floodwaters at Woodburn.

The team left Sydney yesterday, picking up an Inflatable Rescue Boat (IRB) at Camden Haven and a couple of SES boats on their way to the Northern Rivers. They had just bunked down for the night at the SES centre at Woodburn when the call came at 3am.

Donning their specialised protective gear, the SLS and SES combined team used an Ark Angel raft to wade about 400m into floodwaters to find the ute, almost completely underwater, to retrieve the relieved local and his dog and take them safely back to dry ground.

It’s these unique skills, based in surf life saving and then honed by specialist international training that sets the Tasmanian volunteers apart from any other lifesavers in the country.

Even trudging through the dark, in dirty floodwaters in the middle of the night, the lifesavers agreed the experience was hugely valuable and a great opportunity to put their training and equipment to the test.

Adrian Petrie, a Tassie firefighter and expert in complex rescue operations joked that the northern NSW conditions were much milder than they’re used to, “just doesn’t feel the same when it’s not minus one degree!”

Despite having far fewer members than the larger states, the Tassie lifesavers punch well above their weight.

“Because of our size, we can be a bit more agile,” said SLST CEO and one of the visiting rescuers, Tony van den Enden. “In Tassie none of our emergency services can do it all and we found ourselves in a niche and filling a gap. Our people are using these skills all the time on patrol and in competition so it makes sense.”

The impetus for upskilling and gaining specialist flood water rescue skills came in the aftermath of the Tasmanian floods in 2016, when Surf Life Saving realised they needed to expedite the transfer of skills from surf rescue and swift water, to broadwater inundation, but they needed the training and protective equipment.

“In the 2016 floods we got through it, but realised we really needed to know what we should be doing to properly protect ourselves. A flood event is really a hazmat event. We did some research, came up with a kit and secured a grant for personal protective equipment.”

To avoid infection the team are kitted out with full dry suits, quick-dry steel capped boots, quick release lifejackets, specialised helmets, lights and roping gear. Then there’s the boats.

“A lot of our equipment was right, our IRBs were ideal but they’re not armoured up enough to perform the functions in some of these environments. We picked up similar sized boats and the whole idea is our IRB motors can go straight onto them and we can move the boats around, or chopper them in if needed.”

Training the volunteers began with a visit to the experts in the UK, followed by a small contingent of lifesavers being invited to a 10-day master class with the Charlotte Fire Service in North Carolina.

“We found our members very quickly adapted to that swift water environment. Then there’s some training in animal handling, because people being rescued don’t want to go anywhere without their pets,” said Tony.

Now they have the skills, the Tasmanian lifesavers are even training the marine police, ambulance and helicopter crews in their home state.

Surf Life Saving NSW Director of Lifesaving Joel Wiseman thanked the SLST team for bringing their expertise and support to the flood ravaged communities in NSW. “This is a fantastic asset to have as part of our broader Surf Life Saving family and we would love to have some of our NSW lifesavers complete this sort of training at some stage.”

SLST’s CEO agreed that it pays to be prepared. “It’s a great opportunity to develop that interoperability with other states, and emergency services,” said Tony van den Enden. “Surf Life Saving attracts can-do people, our volunteers want to get in and get it done, we’re inclusive and we’re willing to share.

“I think we work so well with other agencies too because we’re a charity, and we know how hard it is to get there. We’re all trying to do it together and save lives.”

Friday 1 April 2022