While an aquatics centre manager, lifeguard or swim teacher might not first come to mind as roles with skills to help out in a bushfire emergency, that is certainly something staff at one Lakes Entrance aquatic facility can attest to after volunteering during the East Gippsland bushfires.

Staff from East Gippsland Shire Council’s Lakes Entrance Aquadome played a crucial role assisting at a community relief centre in Lakes Entrance over the New Year period as bushfires raged across East Gippsland.

In particular, Lakes Entrance Aquadome centre manager Kelly Smart was called upon to take a lead role in the set up and coordination of the town’s second relief centre, while facility staff played a crucial role in providing first aid and support to community members sheltered in the relief centre.

Kelly told LSV her first role in the emergency was to assist the CFA, who had got in touch with staff at the Aquadome on December 30, and who also work at the Orbost Outdoor Pool, because they urgently needed water to refill their tanks.

“At about 2pm came the emergency message, get out now, so we shut the Orbost pool and the Lakes Aquadome facility and sent people home,” she said.

“During this time I had to remain calm, but I was worried. All this happened within three hours.”

Kelly went home but soon after was notified by the control centre that Lakes Entrance needed another relief centre open, as the main one in town was at capacity. Kelly was asked if she could assist with the running of it, along with the Red Cross and other volunteers, and put her hand up without hesitation.

“The decision was made to open the local basketball stadium as a relief centre, so people could have somewhere to sleep the night,” she said.

“Some of the aquatic centre staff volunteered to help out in preparing the basketball stadium. I was so impressed with how they immediately switched into gear when tasked with going around town to collect bedding for the soon-to-be evacuees.

“They went to the recreation centre and got whatever bedding they could find – cot mattresses, yoga mats, swim school mats – and took them all to the relief centre.  It took four carloads to get everything from the recreation centre to the stadium and we had lifeguards, swim teachers, gym instructors and customer service staff all chipping in.”

After that, Kelly said the task was to do a food and water run from the local Woolworths.

“Other customers who were also shopping for supplies let all us volunteers go through the checkouts first – they knew we were getting supplies for the relief centre.”

By the time they got back, Kelly said evacuees were waiting in line to get in.

“The Red Cross registered them and then aquatic centre staff turned into administrators and first-aid providers.”

It was at this point that Kelly began to realise just how valuable the first-aid skills she and others had learnt as part of aquatic industry training were for effective emergency planning and preparedness.

“People were having asthma attacks, anxiety attacks and were dehydrated,” she said.

“I moved into ‘risk mode’ which was checking for any important updates and making sure people were safe.”

Kelly was responsible for managing teams working in shifts – and decided to stay with the overnight team. It got to 3am and she remembers going outside, which is when it all hit her.

“The sky was red and it was just dead silent and there was ash falling from the sky. It was at that moment I had the thought ‘is this really happening’?

“But my training and working with people all the time put my mind at ease. I knew how to manage people.”

Later that day, after having caught up on some much needed sleep, Kelly recalls she was one of many of the local people in Lakes Entrance  having fish and chips for dinner and listening to a local musician perform –  a New Year’s Eve moment she will never forget.

“At one point, there were a few of the fire trucks coming back through town having finished fighting fires for the day.

“Everyone stopped, turned around and applauded them coming through – I get emotional thinking about this now. The community spirit, at that time, made you realise that was exactly what was needed. It was a community coming together in a time of need.”

It was also at this moment that Kelly realised that she and other aquatic and recreation staff, who had no major emergency training, had just jumped in to help however they could.

“It wasn’t about ‘this is not my job’, it’s just how can I help,” she said.

Kelly’s role in helping bushfire relief and recovery efforts ended up lasting about two weeks, even when the relief centre had turned into an information centre.

“I’m a pretty strong person and know how to help people but looking back, I’m just so impressed with how some of my staff handled it.

“The conflict resolution training and aquatics industry training really helped them to deal with people in all stages of grief, including people who were angry. These staff helped people in their darkest moments.

“So many peopled sacrificed time away from their families and that was what community was all about at the time.”

Life Saving Victoria (LSV) and East Gippsland Shire Council had been a “great support” for aquatic facility staff during this time, Kelly said, especially when it came to providing resources on how to deal with trauma and the need for staff to seek extra emotional support.

Kelly said the bushfires had changed her and almost everyone impacted by the summer emergency.

“I’ve learned about the importance of taking time to stop and to ask for help.

“Going through this, I really understand what community means and what it is. The community of East Gippsland has shown me how good humanity actually is.”

Kelly said she hoped sharing her story would draw attention to the fact people who worked in the aquatics industry have the skills to adapt to all sorts of scenarios.

“It wasn’t just emergency workers that were involved in the bushfire efforts, some were just everyday people who had the skills to help. Having lifeguard training, communications training, and conflict resolution training were all really valuable skills to have during this emergency.”

LSV’s Aquatic Education Services Coordinator Jennifer Howgate said LSV recognised the contribution that Kelly and the other aquatic facility staff made in the East Gippsland bushfires.

“Having not dealt with any major emergency prior, the way in which Kelly and her staff handled the situation is deserving of praise and commendation,” Ms Howgate said.

“With a strong focus on safety in the aquatics industry, the grounding that Kelly has had working in an aquatic facility has been invaluable to her ability to provide effective leadership at the time.

“Kelly possesses a strong and thoughtful character and put her own hand up to be part of the volunteer efforts. LSV is proud to work closely with Kelly and the team at Lakes Entrance Aquadome across a number of education, training and safety programs.”

Life Saving Victoria CEO Dr Nigel Taylor commended the efforts of Kelly and other aquatics facility staff.

“We applaud Kelly and all the Lakes Aquadome staff who assisted the bushfire relief efforts in East Gippsland this summer. The skills they have acquired during this emergency are likely to have a profound and long-lasting impact on their lives and roles as lifeguards, swim teachers, gym instructors, customer service staff and as aquatics industry professionals.”

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