Personal support in an Emergency Situation

Today was my first day without a nap since Wednesday last week; for which I feel inordinately proud. And inordinately tired.

I had training today for Providing Personal Support in an Emergency Situation. The Councils and Emergency Services of Melbourne learnt some hard, difficult lessons on Black Saturday, but a lot of good came out of that horrific time.

We now all take time to train, and re-train, staff. We practice setting up Emergency Relief Centres, we share knowledge, manuals, information, technical improvements, everything we can to spread the load. As an example of a seemingly small thing, our council is having a weekly meeting across different departments to ensure we are as prepared as we can be as we head towards Bush Fire season, (mind you, we’ve also had some pretty awful floods over the Christmas break too). Being able to set up a functioning centre with people who will greet affected residents appropriately in an emergency situation is part of that.

The last thing anyone needs if they’re standing there with car keys and a phone and nothing else is a grinning lunatic asking how they’re doing. Being greeted with compassion and empathy as this animated excerpt shown to us today from the inimitable Brené Brown, (who seems to be marching through my life with a torchlit beacon going “Follow me!” at the moment), comes from connection.

Connection from recognising in others what you’ve seen in yourself and being able to stand with someone. To walk beside them. Not to take over and ‘fix’ them, because if you’ve ever been ‘fixed’ by someone; when they’re gone, you’re lost all over again.

Some of the communities we work with have bounced back quicker than others, some have memorials, some not. Because it’s their community and if there is one thing we’ve learned, one size does not fit all. Not everyone wants to rebuild. Not everyone wants to go back. But everyone does have to find their new normal, because the old normal has gone. That first step of finding the new normal is often being welcomed into a relief centre, by someone like me.

One long running conversation we’ve had in various forms was whether to have a memorial at the council office where I work. We’ve (as in employees of council) have long argued against it, despite a fair amount of staff losing family and friends in the fires. We recognise the date each year, coming together to stand in silence, supporting each other. We may change our view down the track, but officers want(ed) the memorials in the communities, not where we work.

One of the most glorious (in every sense of the word) is the Black Smith Tree in Strathewen, which has to be seen to be believed. Each leaf is inscribed; all 3,500 of them; all hand made; all made all over the world, but when you stand underneath it – it just looks like a tree. Simple in its execution, but spine-tingling good, the care and love in each leaf makes you weep. At the base of the tree it says:

I have risen from the flames
I have stretched across the earth
I am shining with your name

I sit in an office, I move paper around. I very rarely meet with residents during the course of my week. I sometimes talk to residents on the phone, but mostly I’m just one of ‘those people’ who work in Local Government, something I do not often speak about on here. Not least because of confidentiality and our Code of Conduct.

Our staff get maligned, complained about, berated, even verbally abused. Residents complain because they’re not getting their way, because they feel hard done by, mistreated, or they think if they keep saying the same thing over and over, legislation will unravel around them as if by magic to make their problem go away. The vitriol and hatred that comes our way sometimes is heartbreaking.

We choose to work in Local Government because we want to give back to our communities. Local Government is not easy, we are administering (literally) the laws of the land, enforcing legislation which is confusing, can contradict other Acts and can make no sense when sitting alongside the next tier in government.

But on days like today? I’m so damn proud to work in Local Government. Because we are with you, and not just when you need us or when something goes wrong. We are with you from the birth of your children; to helping row your parent out on their final journey; we’re immunising your children; helping P-platers get their driving hours in; providing accessible arts and culture and sporting facilities to everyone; providing crossing supervisors for schools; inspecting restaurant kitchens to ensure they’re clean; helping you navigate how to build a house; providing meals on wheels; funding libraries; because together – we’re stronger.

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