The National Emergency Medal a muddled medal volunteers deserve more

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Dear Prime Minister,

The National Emergency Medal was established in October 2011 by the Gillard Government and is an award of the Australian honours system given for sustained or significant service during a nationally significant emergency.

The criteria for award of the National Emergency Medal has been criticised as not honouring the efforts of many volunteers. Due to safety issues, many volunteers were rotated out of disaster areas after as little as five days and unable to spend the required amount of time as on the ground in the disaster area to qualify for the medal. The timeframes that have been established by the NEM committee and maintained by the committee are unrealistic and not in keeping with community expectations for the sustained service section of this award.

Lucy Kippist, writer at The Punch described the "confusing, disorganised and grossly unfair way the National Emergency Medal was put together in the first place. Thousands of volunteers across the country also expected to be on that list." She also stated that after announcing the creation of the new medal, the "Prime Minister neglected to mention that most of the volunteers who served in those regions were completely ineligible for the award. (see attachment for the full article)

Prime Minister Julia Gillard when announcing the new medal, quoted that the medal is "an award for the many, not the few." This statement has since proved to be incorrect as most emergency services volunteers, even those who were involved in all three relevant national emergencies, i.e., Victorian fires, Brisbane floods and Cyclone Yasi, are ineligible for the award.

Apart from this, issues arise with people who may have spent five days in Victoria, five days in Brisbane floods and another five days involved in Cyclone Yasi, a total of 15 days in national emergency areas but still not able to qualify for the medal, even though seven days is enough for Victoria alone.

The statistics speak for themselves and can be obtained from ‘It’s an Honour” web site. Only 70 medals have been issued since the introduction of the award, only 3 specific events have been listed as national emergency disasters (all from the original set up) even though over 10,000 volunteers and paid emergency service members attending those events only less than 0.01% have been awarded a medal.

Since that time in NSW alone there have been two of the most devastating East Coast lows and many emergency’s declared in NSW, Vic, SA and WA with none of these events being added to the list of applicable national emergencies, even though they were larger, longer and required more assistance from interstate and overseas emergency services than the original three. The stats don’t lie they indicate the medal is just not working or fulfilling its original role.

As a NSW SES Volunteer and a task-force member who travelled to Cardwell after Cyclone Yasi to assist the local community start to recover from such as massive disaster it was devastating blow to know that myself and about 10,000 other emergency volunteers that put their lives and jobs on hold to travel vast distances and face uncertain conditions to do the right thing and give a mate a hand would not be recognised in the meaningful way that the National Emergency Medal was peddled to do by the Government of the day as ‘an award for the many, not the few’.

I like a lot of my fellow volunteers believed the words of the Government of Prime Minister Gillard, that we would be on that list of recipients for this recognition. I also believed and assumed that the following governments would be by-partisan in their approach to making sure the medal would be fit for purpose and reviewed so the emergency volunteers and others who hold this country on their shoulders when the sh*t hits the fan and get it back together and running again would be honoured and recognised with an award for the many, not the few.

So I am calling on you to fix this broken National Emergency Medal medallic system in the following ways:

1.       Reduce the sustained service requirements for volunteers to 5 days (including travel) a day being calculated as 6 hrs and if more than 6 hrs is being worked in a 24hrs than the total hours worked will be divided by 6 hrs for the purposes of allocation of days.

2.       Make the reduced sustained service requirements retrospective back to the introduction of the medal.

3.       Ensure that the sustained service requirements are always in keeping with the WHS legal requirements for working in disaster sites and in alignment with the deployment timeframes as they are applied by each state to emergency service personal deployed to identified disasters.

4.       Change the makeup of the National Emergency Medal award committee to include a yearly rotating member of the SES, RFS (or equivalent), preferably an emergency service volunteer. Allow the representation for those services to be rotated between states and don’t make the committee so out of touch with community expectations.

5.       Allow the state Premiers to nominate new national events to an included on the roster of national emergencies for the medal including events that have happened since the original three at establishment.

6.       Have some hast in imitating these changes as the rightful recipients of this award should not have to wait longer than the 6 years they have to be recognised by the Commonwealth and peoples of Australia as the unsung heroes they all are.

Prime Minister, you are the political leader of this country so as my representative and the representative of the attached signatories please take notice of our voice’s and all the Australians who expect a fair go and some real honouring of our emergency services volunteers. These people who have placed their lives on the line day after day for the community far and wide and always seek nothing for their efforts but respect and some measure of recognition.

Please recognise them not just with words but finally some action, give them a National Emergency Medal finally.

The signed,
Australian volunteers and our supporters, the Australian public.

Attachment 1.

An article from ‘The Punch’

A muddled medal: Our volunteers deserve more
By Lucy Kippist (1st Feb 2012)

In Grantham and beyond, they searched for bodies in battered houses and hot, swampy fields. Clearing debris from footpaths, roads and yards. Eighteen months before, they’d fought the inferno in southern and central Victoria, fighting fires, saving lives, and making endless cups of tea.

They’re Australian volunteers - thousands of them - who left jobs and families to lend a hand to the natural disaster recovery efforts that swept across our eastern states in the past three years.

Their work saved lives and homes. Comforted hearts, and made towns livable again. Actions fit for a reward of huge proportions. But here’s what they got instead. A muddled up medal with serious eligibility issues and a confusing criteria that ignored the efforts of thousands of others. And a bungled up awards ceremony. Seem unfair to you? Well, here’s how it happened.

As we all know by now, despite what occurred at The Lobby on Australia Day, the ceremony had a very clear objective: to honour 26 Australians recognised by the government for their civic efforts during both natural disasters with the new National Emergency Medal. That is admirable. Each one of those 26 Australians deserved recognition for their efforts.

What we didn’t know, however, was the confusing, disorganised and grossly unfair way the National Emergency Medal was put together in the first place. Thousands of volunteers across the country also expected to be on that list.

As one Punch reader informed us this week, after the PM was seen at several disaster sites by a number of volunteers during the Queensland floods spreading the word about a new national medal, volunteers were left with the distinct impression they were eligible for the award.

In this regard, the PM was right. The National Emergency Medal fills an important gap. While organisations like the SES, and rural fire services have their own system and a number of awards for recognising the efforts of their volunteers, there has never been a national award. In fact, New South Wales volunteer Kendall Thompson received the American Benjamin Franklin award last year for his efforts during the Queensland floods. And even went to the US to receive it. 

But what the PM neglected to mention was that most of the volunteers who served in those regions were completely ineligible for the award. Although rumoured to be as a result of a three hour commitment “on the ground”, the National Emergency Medal award recipients needed to have spent quite a bit longer. At least we think, because the government website isn’t so clear.

Here’s what it says: 

The minimum duration of service that a person is required to have completed to qualify is:
• paid service on 14 days, including at least two days in the period beginning on 7 February and ending on 14 February 2009
• unpaid service on 7 days, including at least one day in the period beginning on 7 February and ending on 14 February 2009

Problem is, volunteers are only permitted to spend up to 72 hours in a disaster site – for their own safety. 

Inspector Ben Shepherd of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, told The Punch that in that amount of time volunteers in both Victoria and Queensland disaster sites had been exposed to the most severe conditions they’d ever experienced.

For this reason, they were rotated on a very regular basis and usually given directions to return home to families and paid jobs, after a maximum of three to five days on site.

As another Punch reader told us, some volunteers in the Queensland/Yasi disasters, chose to spend several days on each site. Clocking up five days here and five days there. Yet they still remained ineligible for the National Emergency Medal. Why?

According to Inspector Shepherd volunteering organisations were overwhelmed by the energy and motivation in all three disaster sites. Commitment he describes as nothing less than selfless, given the situations they found themselves in:

“It’s not just the sheer loss of human life. There were hundreds and hundreds of cattle and the broken, desolate towns. They all had an effect,” he said.

As Milanda Rout explored in a very powerful recent piece for the Weekend Australian, that can have devastating long term impacts on the volunteers and their families. Even though all voluntary organisations we spoke to offer their volunteers extensive counseling and support programs.

Bottom line is this: these volunteers deserve more. Starting with a national medal with clear and fair criteria, one that reflects not only the situations in which they found themselves, but also the capacity in which they worked and the time, that as volunteers, they could have realistically given to an incredibly important cause.



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