A muddled medal: Our volunteers deserve more
In Grantham and beyond, they searched for bodies in battered houses and hot, swampy fields. Clearing debris from footpaths, roads and yards. Eighteen months before, they’d fought the inferno in southern and central Victoria, fighting fires, saving lives, and making endless cups of tea.
They’re Australian volunteers - thousands of them - who left jobs and families to lend a hand to the natural disaster recovery efforts that swept across our eastern states in the past three years.
Their work saved lives and homes. Comforted hearts, and made towns livable again. Actions fit for a reward of huge proportions. But here’s what they got instead. A muddled up medal with serious eligibility issues and a confusing criteria that ignored the efforts of thousands of others. And a bungled up awards ceremony. Seem unfair to you? Well, here’s how it happened.
As we all know by now, despite what occurred at The Lobby on Australia Day, the ceremony had a very clear objective: to honour 26 Australians recognised by the government for their civic efforts during both natural disasters with the new National Emergency Medal. That is admirable. Each one of those 26 Australians deserved recognition for their efforts.
What we didn’t know, however, was the confusing, disorganised and grossly unfair way the National Emergency Medal was put together in the first place. Thousands of volunteers across the country also expected to be on that list.
As one Punch reader informed us this week, after the PM was seen at several disaster sites by a number of volunteers during the Queensland floods spreading the word about a new national medal, volunteers were left with the distinct impression they were eligible for the award.
In this regard, the PM was right. The National Emergency Medal fills an important gap. While organisations like the SES, and rural fire services have their own system and a number of awards for recognising the efforts of their volunteers, there has never been a national award. In fact, New South Wales volunteer Kendall Thompson received the American Benjamin Franklin award last year for his efforts during the Queensland floods. And even went to the US to receive it.
But what the PM neglected to mention was that most of the volunteers who served in those regions were completely ineligible for the award. Although rumoured to be as a result of a three hour commitment “on the ground”, the National Emergency Medal award recipients needed to have spent quite a bit longer. At least we think, because the government website isn’t so clear.
Here’s what it says:
The minimum duration of service that a person is required to have completed to qualify is:
• paid service on 14 days, including at least two days in the period beginning on 7 February and ending on 14 February 2009
• unpaid service on 7 days, including at least one day in the period beginning on 7 February and ending on 14 February 2009
Problem is, volunteers are only permitted to spend up to 72 hours in a disaster site – for their own safety.
Inspector Ben Shepherd of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, told The Punch that in that amount of time volunteers in both Victoria and Queensland disaster sites had been exposed to the most severe conditions they’d ever experienced.
For this reason, they were rotated on a very regular basis and usually given directions to return home to families and paid jobs, after a maximum of three to five days on site.
As another Punch reader told us, some volunteers in the Queensland/Yasi disasters, chose to spend several days on each site. Clocking up five days here and five days there. Yet they still remained ineligible for the National Emergency Medal. Why?
According to Inspector Shepherd volunteering organisations were overwhelmed by the energy and motivation in all three disaster sites. Commitment he describes as nothing less than selfless, given the situations they found themselves in:
“It’s not just the sheer loss of human life. There were hundreds and hundreds of cattle and the broken, desolate towns. They all had an effect,” he said.
As Milanda Rout explored in a very powerful recent piece for the Weekend Australian, that can have devastating long term impacts on the volunteers and their families. Even though all voluntary organisations we spoke to offer their volunteers extensive counseling and support programs.
Bottom line is this: these volunteers deserve more. Starting with a national medal with clear and fair criteria, one that reflects not only the situations in which they found themselves, but also the capacity in which they worked and the time, that as volunteers, they could have realistically given to an incredibly important cause.
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