Australia: Lismore volunteer warns against plan to equip NSW locals to be first responders in a disaster

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Locals rushed to help during the February flood. (ABC North Coast: Bruce Mackenzie) © Provided by ABC NEWS Locals rushed to help during the February flood. (ABC North Coast: Bruce Mackenzie)

A man who helped rescue dozens of people trapped by dangerous floodwaters in Lismore earlier this year has warned against a proposed volunteer responders' program to help prepare for future disasters.

The so called 'tinny army' saved countless lives using privately owned jet skis and dingys, against the advice of authorities, as emergency services struggled to cope to demand.

It prompted an independent inquiry into the event to recommend a 'community first-responders' program', which the NSW government has said it would support.

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The program would help to train and resource local people across the state to respond to disasters in their area.

But Chris Sherring, who "teamed up with a few strangers" to help save 46 people from floodwaters, said it was "not fair" to burden people with limited training with that level of responsibility.

He said emergency services were not prepared for the catastrophic flood, and that providing a better official response needed to be the focus.

"For that initial rescue response, I genuinely think it should be professionals that are continually trained, covered by insurances and work cover, that sort of thing," Mr Sherring said.

Byron Shire Councillor and lawyer Mark Swivel said if the program were to proceed there would need to be a review of Good Samaritan laws, which protect bystanders responding to an emergency.

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He said the law protects people who help others in an emergency by intervening immediately, but in the case of Lismore's volunteers much of the community response was considered and coordinated.

"We need to expand the existing protections so that it covers more of what people actually do in a crisis," he said.

Mr Sherring was also concerned that there has been no mention of long-term support for the impromptu volunteers in the Northern Rivers flood event, aside from public declarations of appreciation.

Like many of the rescuers, several moments where he put his "life on the line" have stuck with him.

He recalled one rescue where the only way to reach voices he could hear in a roof cavity was to "submerge myself in the water to get through a window".

"Inside I found a single mother with her autistic 10-year-old, and he was petrified of entering that water again," Mr Sherring said.

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"I pulled him through the house … pushed furniture out of the way to get back to that window, and back to the boat.

"I still think about that poor kid and the trauma that he suffered."

Push for official recognition

Lismore woman Sarah Moran is also worried that the life-saving volunteers are at risk of being forgotten. She wants the Governor-General to award each of them a bravery medal.

The independent inquiry noted there was "no formal record of the community's involvement in the rescue effort".

But Ms Moran said she has collated a list of 226 names that she has drafted based on informal conversations in her community.

Ms Moran said knowing the names of those who ignored advice from authorities not to conduct the rescues was important not only to learn lessons, but to check in on them.

She said those who helped with the emergency response in a formal capacity would be supported by their organisation, but no-one was reaching out to the impromptu volunteers to make sure they were accessing available services.

"These people are saying, 'you know we're actually not right'," she said.

"We kind of think it's about time that we check in and just make sure that they're doing OK."

Ms Moran has lobbied the Governor-General to bestow bravery medals, which are awarded to individuals for acts of bravery in hazardous circumstances.

"These people are our heroes," she said.

"We need that to be honoured and respected. We need that recognition for the community to heal."

A spokesperson for the Governor-General said he could not comment on individual nominations, and that any nomination would be researched before being presented to an independent council for consideration.

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