Young he­roes make a dif­fer­ence

Southern Telegraph - - NEWS - Sarah Ison

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.

Pic­ture: Michael Wil­son

The new gen­er­a­tion of our vol­un­teers in­cludes Sea Res­cue’s Daniel Clark­son, the SES’ SarahHamil­ton, Fire­fighter Benn Mar­shall and surf life­saver Emile Mercier.

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