For the nearly 1500 guests who have been evacuated from the Victorian town of Mallacoota to Western Port on board HMAS Choules, the journey was made easier by the presence of people from other agencies who helped the ship’s company look after them.
Embarked for the first evacuation journey were six members from the Australian Red Cross and four Victoria Police (VicPol) officers. Joining the ship’s company for the second run from Mallacoota to Western Port was four VicPol officers and five members of the Red Cross.
Alex Suwitra, Team Leader of the Australian Red Cross Emergency Service Team, said that the team was on board to provide personal support.
“We are here to be a shoulder to lean on and someone to talk to help the evacuees cope as they deal with the crisis that has just occurred,” Mr Suwitra said.
“Australian Red Cross Emergency Services provide help before, during and after disasters.
“The role that we’re playing on the ship here, in particular, is to try to help people to process what’s just happened and to provide them the support that they’re going to need during this journey and then to help to link them into the resources they might need afterwards.
“All these people have been impacted by the various events that have occurred, so we’re seeing a mix of emotions, but people are overall excited to be on a Navy vessel.”
For many of the evacuees, the presence of Victoria Police members, working alongside Red Cross, Navy and Army personnel, was a reassuring continuation of the coordination role played by Victoria Police from the onset of the crisis.
Victoria Police team leader, Sergeant Mark Jarski, said that his team was asked to join Choules due to the number of civilians that were to be evacuated on board the ship.
“Obviously the evacuees had experienced an horrific event and we were here to, in essence, be a visible presence to engage with them and get an understanding of what they have gone through, and to be a conduit with the Navy,” Sergeant Jarski said.
“There was so much gratitude from the evacuees - not only spoken but visible on their faces. In every conversation and every interaction we had you could feel the sense of relief, considering what they had been exposed to in the previous days.
“The experience of integrating with the Navy was sensational - every person we spoke to went out of their way at all times, and they ran a very tight ship.
“I have such a high level of admiration and pride for what this collaborative approach achieved.”
Choules’ Commanding Officer, Commander Scott Houlihan underlined his gratitude for the professionalism and collaboration with the Red Cross and Victoria Police.
“From the very outset this mission has been built upon tight integration with a variety of agencies,” Commander Houlihan said.
“The VicPol and Red Cross personnel brought compassion and commitment to the operation that complemented that of ship’s company, while adding specialised skills of dealing with the public in a crisis situation.
“It is uncommon to have personnel from either of these organisation at sea, we have a deep appreciation for the important role that they played.”
Operation BUSHFIRE ASSIST 19-20 imagery is available on the Defence Image Gallery: