Red Cross in Australia is 100! It has been an interesting journey for an organisation that is a little bit different to others. It has been recognised by at least one author as the first disaster management organisation in Australia. When you think about it, we do precede fire services and emergency services as they currently are constituted. This role started to be superseded by government in the 1950s with the rise of civil defence agencies. Although interestingly, Red Cross in many other countries still plays this role. I recall a somewhat frosty relationship between the SES in Victoria and Red Cross. I learnt, so the story goes, as Victoria was in the grips of privatisation mania with the Kennett Government, the then executive director of Red Cross apparently had made a takeover bid for the SES. Nothing came of this, and I am not sure if it was one of those myths or throw away lines that became amplified.
I’ve always been aware of Red Cross. As a school kid, I volunteered to doorknock for Red Cross calling. I also had a lot of Red Cross Lego as a kid. Back in 1997, I was working in a community organisation, and I saw an advertisement for a job with Red Cross emergency Services in Victoria. I remember thinking as I applied for the job that I was unlikely to get it as Red Cross was such a special organisation, and emergency management was so specialised. Through my studies, and my work as a nurse, I became the Deputy Coordinator for Registration (NRIS) . My then boss said, one half of the organisation is here to achieve something, the other half are waiting for their bloody OBE!
Not long after I started I managed to destroy the National Registration and Inquiry System’s computer system, three days before Christmas, by doing an upgrade (with floppy discs!). Panicked, I could see my short career in emergency management over, as I eventually came clean with our police partners. Inspector Leo Van Der Toorren, one of the more decent people I have come across in my career, told me not to worry, it had to be the computers. As it turned out, it was a bug.
My first disaster with Red Cross was the 1998 Trentham Fires. Of course it was a Sunday night, we were told to activate the State Inquiry Centre, so I raced in to work (on my bike), in little more than thongs, t shirts and shorts. The adrenalin was pumping. As it turned out, we didn’t need the state inquiry centre. I ended up having to do some deliveries to various evacuation centres in Gisborne and Woodend. It was very eerie driving through darkened forests, with the red glow on the horizon, and fire trucks screaming up and down the highway.
Moving through a number of roles, I managed the emergency services department in Victoria for 9 months before leaving Red Cross for government, and the Department of Human Services. But seven years in the state government was enough, and when Andrew Coghlan, the National Manager for Emergency Services rang me and said, “I might have some projects, would you be interested”, I jumped at it. I didn’t think I would come back to Red Cross, but I had worked closely with Noel Clement during the Bali Bombings, to know that the organisation had gone leaps and bounds. And the carrot was, “we’d like to do something with preparedness” which was a theme that struck a chord. After working in recovery so long, I realised that we were missing something in emergency management, when some many people said “if only I had…..” saved the photos, the milking sheds etc. So I came back, started Rediplan, which I think has changed the conversations we have about preparedness.
I think we now live up to our potential. When I first joined Red Cross, we attracted some fantastic people, but couldn’t hold onto them. What Red Cross represented and what Red Cross was in emergency management at that time were two different things, and many of us left, promise unfulfilled. Fast forward to now, and again I work with some amazingly talented and committed people. This time, given our commitment to the broader spectrum of emergency management, and our willingness to get involved in more meaty areas of work, I think we now have closed the gap between what could be and what is. Many of us see Red Cross not only as a doer in emergency management, but a bit of a thinker, wanting to make sure that we do things better, so the outcomes for the punters is better. I witness the work that we have done in recovery. It is not only good practice, but it is distributive practice, not all invested in one or two people.
Red Cross acts as a bit of a “glue”. I think one of our strengths is trying to hold some of the knowledge that is generated through practice. As I have mentioned previously, much of the knowledge gets lost, and we have an opportunity, and I’d say an obligation, to make sure knowledge and practice in disaster management is learnt and shared. This is my colleague Kate talking about what we do.
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We are also a bit of a window onto the world of 180 odd Red Cross societies around the world. I hook up with my colleagues in Washington, Ottawa, and Wellington on a semi regular basis, and we share info and ideas.
I have been fortunate and privileged to work with an amazing group of people, our volunteers, my colleagues, and of course those people who survive. It’s for you we get up in the morning (and sometimes don’t go to bed).
One of the great songs sums it all up.