Lismore volunteer warns of plans to equip NSW residents to be first responders in disasters

A man who helped rescue dozens of people trapped by dangerous floodwaters in Lismore earlier this year has warned of a proposed volunteer responder program to help prepare for future disasters.

The so-called ‘metal army’ saved countless lives by using private jet skis and dingys, against the advice of authorities, as emergency services struggled to keep up with demand.

It sparked an independent investigation into the event to recommend a “community first responder scheme”, which the NSW government said it would support.

The program would help train and provide resources to local people across the state to respond to disasters in their area.

But Chris Sherring, who ‘teamed up with a few strangers’ to help rescue 46 people from floodwaters, said it was ‘not fair’ to impose that level of responsibility on people with limited training .

He said emergency services were unprepared for the catastrophic flood and the focus needed to be on a better official response.

“For this initial rescue response, I sincerely believe it should be professionals who are continually trained, covered by insurance and work coverage, that sort of thing,” Sherring said.

Chris Sherring, middle, met a “group of strangers” to help save dozens of people.(Provided: Chris Sherring)

Byron Shire adviser and lawyer Mark Swivel said that if the program were to continue, good Samaritan laws, which protect passers-by responding to an emergency, would need to be reviewed.

He said the law protects people helping others in an emergency by responding immediately, but in the case of the Lismore volunteers much of the community response was considered and coordinated.

“We need to expand existing protections to cover more of what people actually do in a crisis,” he said.

Lawyer Mark Swivel says Good Samaritan laws need to be overhauled.(Provided: Kirra Pendergast)

Mr Sherring also expressed concern that there was no mention of long-term support for impromptu volunteers during the Northern Rivers flood, apart from public statements of appreciation.

Like many rescuers, several moments when he put his “life on the line” marked him.

He recalled one rescue where the only way to reach voices he could hear in a roof cavity was to “submerge himself in water to fit through a window”.

“Inside I found a single mother with her 10-year-old autistic child, and he was petrified to step into that water again,” Mr Sherring said.

“I pulled it through the house…I pushed the furniture out of the way to get back to that window and the boat.

“I still think about that poor kid and the trauma he went through.”

Push for official recognition

Lismore’s wife, Sarah Moran, also fears that the volunteers who save lives are at risk of being forgotten. She wants the Governor General to award each of them a medal of bravery.

The independent investigation noted that there was “no official record of community involvement in the rescue effort”.

But Ms Moran said she had put together a list of 226 names that she had compiled based on informal conversations in her community.

Ms Moran said knowing the names of those who ignored authorities’ advice not to carry out rescues was important not just to learn lessons, but to verify them.

She said those who helped with the emergency response in an official capacity would be supported by their organization, but no one contacted the impromptu volunteers to ensure they had access to available services.

“These people say, ‘you know, we’re not right,'” she said.

“We kind of think it’s time to check in and make sure they’re okay.”

woman, unsmiling, wearing pink glasses
Sarah Moran wants the Governor General to award bravery awards to volunteers.(Provided: Sarah Moran)

Ms. Moran lobbied the Governor-General to award medals of bravery, which are awarded to individuals for acts of bravery in dangerous circumstances.

“These people are our heroes,” she said.

“We need that to be honored and respected. We need that recognition for the community to heal.”

A spokesman for the governor general said he could not comment on individual nominations and that any nominations would be considered before being presented to an independent board for consideration.

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