National Emergency medals for dispatchers on Black Saturday

THE calls dropping out were the most difficult part of dispatch worker Mandy Glover’s Black Saturday. 

Emergency call centre workers Julie Egerton and Mandy Glover are among 22 Ballarat staff being awarded the National Emergency Medal for their efforts on Black Saturday. 
Picture: JEREMY BANNISTER

Emergency call centre workers Julie Egerton and Mandy Glover are among 22 Ballarat staff being awarded the National Emergency Medal for their efforts on Black Saturday. Picture: JEREMY BANNISTER

Working from the Ballarat Emergency Services Telecommunication Authority (ESTA) site, Ms Glover said she heard mayday calls and then radio silence several times while trying to stay in touch with CFA trucks out in the field.

“(By the afternoon) we were not just getting calls from the public, we then started getting radio transmissions from brigade members out in the field that were stuck,” she said.

“We didn’t know where they were (exactly), but we really had a little idea where they were.

“We were getting mayday calls, we were getting phone calls, and that continued for a good couple of days.”

Ms Glover has been awarded the National Emergency Medal for her actions on Black Saturday at the Ballarat centre. 

She is one of 22 Ballarat staff given the medal and 362 across the state to be recognised for their role taking emergency calls on Australia’s worst day for bushfires. 

ESTA didn’t have sophisticated maps at the time, so it was difficult for Ms Glover to track the fires precisely as she was directing trucks. 

“They were just moving themselves around in the end. It just became unimaginable, really,” she said. 

Despite the mayday calls, only one on-duty CFA volunteer was among the 173 people killed around the state in the February 7, 2009 fires. 

Ms Glover will be presented her medal at a second ceremony next month, because only a certain number of operators can leave the centre each day.

She said it was good ESTA staff were being recognised for their work. 

“It was that helpless feeling. We just really felt for a really long time that we’d let people down, that we hadn’t done all that we could do,” she said.

“I suppose for me it’s a bit of closure, that we did a good job.”

Part of that feeling came from the distance they felt from the fires, Ms Glover said.

“It really became real when we heard (broadcaster) Brian Naylor had died,” she said. “When you can put a face to the name it becomes a bit different.”

Operators thanked for grace under pressure

TRIPLE Zero operators refused to take breaks on Black Saturday, with managers ferrying them food and water as they answered increasingly desperate calls for help. 

Julie Egerton was assistant manager at the Ballarat Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority (ESTA) site on February 7, 2009, and has been awarded a National Emergency Medal for her role in getting help to people in danger on the day. 

“All week we knew it was going to be a bad day, so we all got in fairly early. It was a case of just sitting there waiting. It was an awful type of feeling,” Ms Egerton said. 

Despite being prepared, the fires were unlike anything the ESTA workers had previously come across. 

After midday, the trickle of calls became a deluge, dispatcher Mandy Glover said. 

“We then got to a stage when people were saying ‘I can see the fire, it’s coming over the hill’ so a lot of them, the phone calls we were taking, we were possibly the last person that person would speak to,” she said. 

Emergency Services Minister Kim Wells paid tribute to the performance of the dispatchers and call-takers in a video message at the first of two Ballarat ceremonies.

“They received so many panicked, chaotic calls, and did so well,” he said. 

Grampians Acting Regional Commander Phil Beasley said he was proud of how the centre had co-ordinated the efforts and dealt with the enormous number of people in trouble. 

“(ESTA staff) are on the front line. They are integral to what the CFA does, because they both collect the reports and determine the type of incident and how it should be handled,” he said. 

Ms Egerton said Black Saturday was a day beyond parallel. 

“Nothing we’d ever done could have prepared us for a day like that. It was unimaginable.”

alex.hamer@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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