Unsung heroes recognised

September 13, 2017

Shepparton Search and Rescue's newest life member Ross Wilkinson with president Mick D'Elia on Saturday night.

For 45 years, volunteer organisation Shepparton Search and Rescue has been on hand to help police and ambulance services in emergency situations.

What initially started as an underwater dive and recovery unit has now expanded into an invaluable organisation which exists to serve Shepparton and the surrounding area.

Following a series of tragic accidents in 1971, it was realised by a handful of citizens some form of organised rescue group was needed.

Mirroring what the Echuca-Moama search and rescue group was doing at the time, SS&RS originally started as an affiliate to that group.

‘‘(The affiliation) was good when we started off, but when we were running raffles, fundraising and what-not people thought the money was going out of Shepparton,’’ SS&RS life member Gary Lovell said.

So a decision was made to become a separate entity and, in 1972, Shepparton Search and Rescue was officially born.

Entirely self-funded, group members paid for all the equipment themselves and predominately focused on assisting police in searching for people or items in the river.

‘‘It was very dangerous work ... when I joined it was very old-school — you had to be a man’s man,’’ Mr Lovell said.

One day, a member put floodlights on top of a stand he had built so the group had lighting when searching in the river at night.

Before they knew it, police were calling the group to road accidents.

‘‘We were attending in runners and overalls ... had to buy everything ourselves and each member paid for the letters to put on the back of our outfits,’’ Mr Lovell said.

‘‘We would do road lighting and got to see the trouble police, ambulances and tow truck drivers would go through trying to break apart mangled cars,’’ Mr Lovell said.

So in 1978 the group bought the Jaws of Life from the United States, becoming the first town in regional Australia to use the hydraulic rescue tool.

‘‘The Sydney Metropolitan Fire Brigade had one they were using but no-one else did,’’ Mr Lovell said.

‘‘When our shipment arrived it contained another for Sydney, one for Melbourne Metropolitan Fire Brigade and one for us — we just grew from that.’’

Since then, the group has grown to 34 members and now works in conjunction with Tatura SES to serve north-east Victoria.

‘‘At our Dudley St facility we have two trucks, two lighting trailers, two boats and a whole range of other specialist equipment,’’ SS&RS president Michael D’Elia said.

The existence of the group is regularly put under the microscope and the question is often asked as to why it does not allow itself to be taken over by the Victoria State Emergency Service.

‘‘We’re proud to be an independent organisation and over the years we’ve shown we can manage ourselves properly,’’ Mr D’Elia said.

‘‘We are able to work in with every agency in a professional manner and we’ve shown that there is a place for our service.’’

On Saturday night, SS&RS celebrated 45 years of service to the Shepparton community and awarded a variety of service awards to members.

‘‘We gave out years of service medals from 10 to 45 years ... it was pretty special to hand out three awards to Stan, Ed and Frank who have been around since the beginning,’’ Mr D’Elia said.

He said the weekend’s celebration was a fantastic night and wanted to thank Nacole Standfield and Shannon Baldwin who did a mountain of work to put it together.

‘‘I’d really like to thank everybody that came along ... the future looks bright,’’ he said.

‘‘We’re looking for new ways to make sure our service is delivered in an efficient and effective manner and to make sure we continue to educate the public.’’

Thanks for the service

Ross Wilkinson got the shock of his life on Saturday night when he was awarded life membership for his 21 years of service to Shepparton Search and Rescue Service.

‘‘It’s nice to be acknowledged by your peers and people who you look up to,’’ he said.

‘‘It was a surprise, everybody managed to keep it from me.’’

Mr Wilkinson has held nearly every role on the committee of management, including president, vice-president, secretary and treasurer.

‘‘I tried a few other community volunteering roles but I was looking for the right fit and I found SS&RS to be it, it suited me.

‘‘I like that it is different every time and I feel as if I’m making a real difference in the community.’’

While claiming he was lost for words, Mr Wilkinson managed to speak to the adoring crowd for just on 15 minutes.

‘‘I rambled on a bit ... but to join the five or so others who primarily were all involved in the squad from the beginning is terrific,’’ he said.

‘‘I get just as much out of being a volunteer with Shepparton Search and Rescue as I do putting in, I really enjoy it.’’

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