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Queensland swiftwater rescue squad back in training in time for La Niña flood threat

By Jemima Burt and Brendan Mounter, Sunday December 6, 2020 - 11:52 EDT
ABC image
Firefighters from around Queensland train in swiftwater techniques on the Tully River. - ABC

With the potential for major flooding across the state this summer, Queensland's Fire and Rescue Service has resumed swiftwater rescue training on what it considers one of the world's most demanding courses, the Tully River.

With annual training delayed by the coronavirus pandemic and the La Niña weather pattern expected to bring significant storm activity and rain to the state, there was a sense of urgency as trainees gathered at the training site, south of Cairns.

This time a decade ago, Queensland was entering one of its most devastating flood seasons.

In January 2011, extensive flooding affected 75 per cent of the state, 3,600 homes were evacuated, and 35 lives were lost.

An inquiry into the disaster led to including more swiftwater rescuers trained and ready for deployment.

Timely training as summer arrives

Due to the pandemic, the first course of the year started last week with 15 firefighters from around the state meeting at the Tully Gorge course on one of Australia's best whitewater rivers.

The 10-day course involves theory and practical skills in boats and on ropes.

"We try and evolve the training and structure it to give our candidates as close to real-life scenarios as possible," said instructor John Roche.

Sally Barnes was an outdoor education teacher before she joined Queensland Fire and Rescue in Gladstone two years ago.

She said she was interested in "going in and helping people" and learning new skills and swiftwater rescue attracted her from the start.

"When we finish our course I feel we'll be very prepared for what could come for us in the season," she said.

Queensland Fire and Rescue has used the site for more than a decade.

"This is arguably the best training location in the southern hemisphere, if not the world. I believe the instructor group have developed a course that is second to none," said instructor John Roche.

"We've travelled all through Tasmania, Victoria, we've looked for other locations ? there's no other location like the Tully Gorge."

Rescuer numbers double after inquiry

The 15 graduates take the number of swiftwater rescue technicians in Queensland to 406, almost double the 206 trained for the 2011 floods.

Greg Duncan has been with Queensland Fire and Rescue for 38 years, 15 of those with swiftwater rescue..

"Up until 2011 we were just flying by the seat of our pants, I guess, and thinking that we would never see a floodwater situation like that," Mr Duncan said.

"It was just so beyond anything we could react to properly that we recognised at that time we had to get to a whole other level to do our job properly.

"We've changed so many things, especially since the 2011 flood inquiry.

"We basically doubled our number of swiftwater rescue technicians and incorporated a lot more specific equipment [and] motorised rescue craft in the last couple of years.

These additions had already paid off, Mr Duncan said..

"By the time the Townsville floods came around we had our motorised craft in the field and they did quite a lot of good work," he said.

"We're continuing to develop equipment around the motorised craft.

"They allow us to cross vast expanses of water, they allow us to cross really fast flows and they allow us to move resources like extra swiftwater technicians into place to incidents that they otherwise couldn't have gotten to."

Those resources may be deployed this summer.

"We're looking at a possible large wet season this summer," said instructor John Roche.

After 38 years in the service Greg Duncan is set to retire this month.

"If cyclones cross the coast we'll deploy as many resources as we can possibly provide," he said.

"Hopefully it won't be anything like the 2011 floods again, at least until after I retire."


© ABC 2020

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