As CFA’s firefighters gear up for another bushfire season, along the Victorian coast our 19 Coast Guard units are preparing for their busy season.
Although the rough winter seas present significant challenges, it’s the boating season that brings the vast number of marine safety jobs including search and rescue, breakdowns, sinking boats, boat fires, missing swimmers and people knocked overboard.
Statewide, the Victorian Coast Guard attends about 1200 marine search and rescue incidents each year, with the busiest flotillas being Westernport, St Kilda, Carrum and Safety Beach. The most common job is classified as ‘disablement of vessel and unable to return to shore’ or, in plain English, the boat has mechanical problems.
Warrnambool Coast Guard Commander Allan Wood leads a flotilla of more than 20 members, ranging from former commercial boating professionals to nurses and paramedics.
“We’ve got six skippers, five of whom are on a roster, and five really competent crew members. It’s a concentrated group of members supported by our non-operational volunteers,” Allan said. “People join for all sorts of reasons including learning new skills and gaining knowledge.”
The flotilla trains every Sunday morning whatever the weather. “You’ve got to have a good degree of faith in one another. Training allows us to spend time together to learn about each other’s capabilities. We work really hard to make sure our skills are up to scratch.”
For member Gary Warren it was a matter of bringing his existing skills to the volunteer flotilla, where he can pass them on to new members.
“I was commercial but retiring – this gives me the opportunity to use my skills and play with boats,” Gary said.
On more serious days, though, their work can be the difference between life and death. They work closely with other emergency services, including Lifesaving Victoria, Ambulance Victoria and fire brigades on shore.
“We support each other. We participate in joint exercises managed by the MSAR Office within EMV with Volunteer Marine Rescue Port Fairy, and with the Portland Coast Guard which operates from a busier harbour,” Allan said.
“We can administer appropriate first-aid – we have oxygen, a defibrillator and more – and we work closely with Ambulance Victoria to make sure we can get the job done when it counts.”
In fact, the Coast Guard is instrumental in supporting Ambulance Victoria’s accreditation of its Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS) Mobile Intensive Care Ambulance (MICA) flight paramedics who work on helicopters and are trained to perform winch rescue services.
The ability to winch paramedics into a scene and winch patients out – often from remote areas – allows Ambulance Victoria to respond faster to cases where patients would otherwise be difficult to reach via road. Each year, Coast Guard flotillas volunteer their time for the accreditation exercises at sea.
Queenscliff Coast Guard Commander Michael Donohue, who took part in one such exercise in December last year, said it’s an ideal opportunity for Coast Guard members to practise their skills as well.
“All the skippers get an opportunity with the helicopter, which is great,” Michael said. “You don’t want your first experience with a helicopter when you’ve got an emergency.”
Warrnambool and Queenscliff are both members of the West Victoria squadron, whose management team gets together about once every six weeks. Currently, those gatherings take place through video conferencing.
“It’s a good opportunity to share ideas – that’s the beauty of getting together,” said Michael.
The group’s members are keeping a close eye on a drone and a remote-controlled lifebuoy currently being trialled by Warrnambool Coast Guard.
“We believe it’s the first time a drone has been used for marine search and rescue in Australia,” Allan said. “It’s really exciting to be able to add this to the toolkit as there are a lot of areas along the coast here that we can’t get to without it. We believe it will considerably improve our search visibility in rough seas.”
The flotilla is also one of a few marine search and rescue units in Australia to test a remote-controlled lifebuoy that can make it easier and safer to get a lifebuoy to a person in the water in conditions such as rough seas.
“We’ve been testing it this winter and it works brilliantly,” Allan said
ABOUT THE COAST GUARD
- Victorian Volunteer Coast Guard flotillas have been officially part of CFA since 2008.
- Victoria has 700 trained Coast Guard volunteers, who work tirelessly to provide marine search and rescue services along our coastline and major waterways such as Port Phillip, Western Port and Gippsland Lakes.
- Victoria’s 19 Coast Guard units respond around the clock to about 1200 incidents a year and cover all aspects of marine safety.
- If needed, the Coast Guard can take CFA members to marine fires and the trained Coast Guard volunteers can also add to CFA’s surge capacity and respond to major disasters on land.
- They also take part in training with land-based CFA crews.
- The Coast Guard runs boat licensing qualifications.
- Volunteers train every week in addition to their emergency response and their on-duty weekend activity.
- Speciality training includes marine radio licensing and navigation.