Young heroes make a difference
They fight fires threatening homes and lives, they rescue and rebuild after floods sweep through towns, they stand vigilant by unpredictable seas and they keep one eye trained on the risks many of us don’t see, ready to act when we need them most.
They are our emergency service volunteers.
But as our need for these volunteers grows with more frequent extreme weather events, greater urban sprawl and a rising and ageing population, so does concern around whether they can continue meeting the demand of our communities.
It is in this changing landscape, where the nature of volunteering is also shifting, that Seven West Media has launched its Step Up WA volunteering campaign, to shine a light on those who give up their time for the common good in the face of increasing challenges.
While latest research shows us volunteering is linked strongly to individual wellbeing and shaping communities’ social fabric, it also predicts a looming shortfall, specifically in rural areas, with Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre this week finding 40 per cent of surveyed volunteering organisations had volunteer shortages and a further 16 per cent expected to have shortages within five years.
Nationwide, volunteering rates recently dropped for the first time in the Australian Bureau of Statistics General Social Survey recorded history, after steadily rising to 36 per cent up until 2010, before plunging 5 per cent in 2014.
This perceived volunteer decline marked a shift to a more individualistic, less community-minded culture according to commentators like Curtin Business School’s Future of Work Institute associate professor Patrick Dunlop.
“We’re less community-minded than we used to be,” he said.
“We don’t know our neighbours. . .We’ve become this neoliberal society where you really have to look after yourself.”
However, organisations like Volunteering WA maintained the perceived volunteering “decline” was more a matter of people wanting to volunteer in different ways, rather than not volunteer at all.
Volunteering WA chief executive Tina Williams said the stereotypical image of volunteering was shifting with a rise of virtual and episodic volunteering, which were not always captured in figures.
But Ms Williams said while organisations needed to incorporate this “informal” volunteering, traditional roles would always be crucial, especially in areas of emergency services.
DFES strategic volunteer and youth programs manager Jennifer Pidgeon said the Department of Fire and Emergency Services volunteering numbers had “remained consistent over recent years”, but more volunteers were needed in the face of emerging trends.
“The problem is they are giving less time and from an hour to hour basis, the number of volunteer hours per annum is going down,” she said.
“This is a problem on a number of levels for us.”
While the peak emergency service organisations reported varying fluctuations in volunteer numbers year to year, most identified recruiting and retaining young people as a challenge.
Benn Marshall, a 17-year-old bushfire volunteer, said people his age were less likely “to get out and about”, but that never stopped him.
“It’s exciting though, being the youngest but still being able to teach more to the older guys,” he said.
Ms Williams said without a sustainable volunteer base into the future, many services would grind to a stop.
“Quite simply, hundreds of thousands of jobs wouldn’t get done,” she said.
“There would also be an economic, social and cultural loss for WA.”
But for those currently volunteering, the benefits were immeasurable, not only to their communities but to their mental health and sense of belonging.
It is these stories Seven West Media will tell in coming weeks.
Volunteer Marine Rescue commander Geoff Brierley said he understood times had changed, but it was as important as ever to just try and give back.
“When I started 30 years ago, it was a natural thing,” he said.
“If you think about it, you should chuck in the time to help other people.” To find out more about volunteering and register your own interest, visit thewest.com.au/stepupwa.
The new generation of our volunteers includes Sea Rescue’s Daniel Clarkson, the SES’ SarahHamilton, Firefighter Benn Marshall and surf lifesaver Emile Mercier.