Sheltered Life

I lived a sheltered life as a policeman. I saw no major gruesome scenes, some, but generally I seemed to constantly draw the long straw. When a consulate was bombed in Melbourne I drew roadblock duty rather than having to scrape the terrorists remains off the walls with an egg lifter.

During Ash Wednesday, living in the area affected by the fires, I was given permission to go home on the night the fires were burning rather than join my colleagues working through the night. That seems a little cowardly now when I hear tales of CFA workers fighting fires at stranger’s places when their own homes are burning down. But at the time, it seemed a reasonable request.

I did spend the next week working in the fire affected areas, at various times manning road blocks, driving through the fire areas along roads where trees still burnt, looking for survivors. And like my colleagues who today are doing the same things, we worked long hours, 36 of them in one stretch, then 8 hours off and back on duty again. But I saw no bodies then and I will be forever grateful for that.

Given that the fires have been potentially deliberately lit each location where a body is found is a potential crime scene and must be treated as such. In 1983 the coroner had to visit every scene and I assume that it will be the same now. With so many dead that is a monumental task before the bodies can be released from the scene and taken to the morgue for identification.

What people may not realise is that once the bodies are found someone has to stay with them. In 1983 my colleagues in some cases spent more than a day watching over the dead until they could be removed to the morgue. Some of them never recovered from those scenes and many actually left the job within the next 12 – 24 months. Man power was spread so thinly that these young men and women were left alone without radio contact or vehicles for hours at a time.

Again I had it easy, I spent 12 hours on a country road in the middle of nowhere at one stage, manning a road block no one drove through, with no radio contact, not knowing where the fires were burning or whether they were heading towards us. Eventually a Sergeant came out and apologised saying they’d forgotten myself and a colleague were out there.

So I am feeling for the Emergency Services Workers who are working in the Disaster Victim Identification role at the moment. I know that many of them will never recover from this – that they will have sleepless nights and flashbacks, some of them forever. At least trauma counselling is better now. Even in 1983 whilst it was available, it wasn’t manly to request it. You kept the stiff upper lip and didn’t show what was considered by some at the time to be a sign of weakness.

But there are times when I am grateful for that sheltered life.

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The latest death toll is 131.

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