The Hills State Emergency Service - Evelyn Lester - Part 2


Interviewee: Evelyn Lester, born 1953

Interviewer: Frank Heimans,
            for The Hills Shire Council

Date of Interview: 7 June, 2013

Transcription: Frank Heimans, June 2013

This interview represents the personal recollections, views and opinions of the interviewee

Now your mother got ill, didn’t she, with leukaemia and you cared for her - tell me about that time.

Yes. When I was nursing at Hornsby that was when my mother was diagnosed and at that same time there were two ladies who were diagnosed with the same illness, which was a rare form of leukaemia. The other lady, unfortunately, she lost her battle six months later, but mum was fortunate enough that she went in to remission, so mum went in and out of remission right through until she passed away in 2001. In 1983 my mother had her first by-pass operation for Ischaemic Heart Disease and she had the problem with the heart condition compounded with having the leukaemia. Because of having that blood condition there that caused problems with the heart, so mum ended up between 1983 and 1992 having three open-heart surgeries done for blocked arteries.

In 1992, in August, the doctors advised that my mother had three months to live. At that time I was working at the Anglican Retirement Village and I gave up work to care for mum at that time. I felt, since I only had three months I wanted to cherish the time I had with her. My mother was not aware that she only had three months to live and I gave up time just to be with her. But mum went in and out of her level of being sick and mum had another nine years. It wasn’t until April 2001 that I had her admitted with some cardiac failure, a bit of fluid on the lungs, and there were X-rays taken. So we had her all organised and fixed up again, mum was discharged in the middle of May. Two days after mum was discharged I got a phone call from my cousin that my aunt was seriously ill in the Blue Mountains. I took mum up to the Blue Mountains to be with her sister, who only lasted a couple of days. On 4th June that year mum was going back to the specialist for a check-up and took a coughing fit and they took X-rays and she had a tumour the size of an orange in her lung. That unfortunately was what ended up taking mum from me on 7th September, so there was only the three months.

So how long did you finally end up caring for your mother full-time?

In that time that I had given up to be with mum I would drop the children off at school and then I would continue straight over to mum and be with her, and sit with her, or take a drive. Mum’s passion, or not passion but one of her enjoyments was to go around garage sales, so every Saturday we would get the newspaper and off we would go and drive around garage sales, so she was able to have enjoyment out of it. During that nine years when she’d sort of go back in to hospital it got down to one point: one doctor told me that she had two weeks to live, so that was sort of sitting on tenterhooks the whole time of thinking ‘I am not going to have mum back this time’.

Then I had one specialist, because I was frankly talking to him, he turned round and he said, ‘Evelyn, you have to realise that we are put on earth and we are doctors by degree, but there is only one doctor and that one person is the one who decides when their time is up. So therefore you go each day and you don’t think about what we say.’ With those words, I have been able to utilise those with a few people while I have been doing my SES [State Emergency Services] career. I have come across people who have had the same situations and other circumstances and I have been able to use that with people saying, ‘Do not focus on what the doctors are saying, there is only the one doctor and he will decide.

Well they are only mere mortals, aren’t they. You also look after your son, he has Asperger’s Syndrome, what kind of care does he need?

Andrew wasn’t diagnosed with Asperger’s until he was sixteen, it was picked up when he was two and a half that he had this moderate intellectual disability. At that time that was at the preschool that I had sent him, to enrol him, and they looked and said, ‘You should go to your doctor because Andrew really isn’t up to the standards.’ Because I had a daughter and boys are always a little bit slower than girls I really hadn’t picked it up, Andrew was just a special child to me. He did have a difficult birth and I so worked on that that was the level. They asked me to go and see the doctor and the doctor, he had eight children and he said, ‘No, no he is just a normal child.’ But I persevered and Andrew was then checked out. In that time Andrew also had a fit, he fell over, and he turned black on me and held his breath. After that I used to go the doctors and say, ‘It is like the old saying of someone is walking over your grave, you have the shudder and would I see this quite a bit in him.’

That went on until probably he was about five, I kept on saying this but no one really listened. Then all of a sudden someone started to prick up ears and they did a video of him for eight hours. They told me they can usually re-use the tape because nothing happens in that eight hours, but they worked out Andrew was having eighty fits an hour, they were called petit mals. He was then six months getting the right medication and so far he is not on medication now and everything is going well.

That is great.

Now how did you and State Emergency Services connect?

In 2002 I was approached by a member of the Baulkham Hills SES, as they were doing a recruitment drive at Bunnings. Frank came over to me as I was pushing my trolley back to the trolley bay and asked me about joining. I told them at that time I thought I was a bit old to be joining as a volunteer and he said, ‘No, you are not too old, you are just right.’ Because I didn’t have anything to do with my life at that time other than being a mum I thought well, I could spare some time to help those in need again.

Evidence of 2002 bush fires at Glenorie

What sort of a job did they give you?

Because of my age and because I wasn’t a fit person to be climbing on roofs and I didn’t want to climb on a roof I came into the position of working in the operations centre. At that time we had two computers and at that stage the service was looking at becoming more on-line, so I was in the baby stages of that. The unit has sort of grown since then to now, I think we’ve got about sixteen computers.

What sort of emergencies do you recall happening at that time, those first few years?

When I first started we would take all our calls coming out of the Baulkham Hills Unit, so therefore we had our own call centre, so it was just taking all the calls. During early 2002 we used to have lots of storms at that time and the climate has changed a bit in that we are not having the extreme storms, the last four years has been floods. The call centre was quite busy with lots of trees down and things and leaky roofs.

Before I did get into the SES there was a part that I nearly was working with the RFS [Rural Fire Service]. When I came in to the SES building for my first interview on the Wednesday evening I had my interview and then I sat and watched to see what the guys did. The following week I said, ‘I will come back and sit in again and see what is going on,’ and as I walked in the building everyone was walking out the building and I thought, ‘Oh, I haven’t done anything that wrong that youse are all going as I am arriving’ and my question to the members was, ‘Why are we all leaving?’ and they said, ‘The bushfires are on.’ I said, ‘We do storms and floods,’ and they said, ‘Yes Evelyn, but we also assist the other emergency operations as well and we are now off to go and assist the Rural Fire Service.’ With that I then said to the Operations Officer at the time, ‘Well, I will go home now, but if you want me just to answer phones or make cups of tea I am available.’ I got a phone call the next day and ended up doing five days working in the operations centre, answering calls and then doing their plotting and mapping, assisting with that, at the Rural Fire Service. That was working with the Rural Fire Service, SES supporting the Rural Fire Service. The fire at that stage in 2002 was nicknamed ‘The Dragon’ because it took out quite a lot of Glenorie and Wisemans Ferry, it was quite a major fire.

Have you ever been involved in a bushfire yourself?

No, I haven’t and I don’t want to. When we were living at Dural in the early 1970s there was the major bushfire that had come through the Blue Mountains and because our property was right in line with the Blue Mountains I remember being at home one day with mum being at work and I was still at school and I’d come home and the whole house was covered in smoke. It was not a very comfortable experience, so I do not want to work with fires, I would rather work with floods and storms.

State Emergency Service rescue vehicle in the Orange Blossum
Festival parade in 1987 at North Rocks

How would a typical day be for you now at the SES, what sort of work might you do, what kind of calls might you get?

What we are getting at the moment in the local areas: we get trees down. Today I have just received a call this morning, the weather out there for the last couple days has been sunny and no wind, but I have got a call that a tree branch has snapped off and is threatening to fall on a person’s property now, so I will organise a team to get out and have a look at that. We get the calls for the normal leaking roofs. The Hills Shire in 2007 was also affected by the major western hailstorm that went through and we had in the excess of a thousand jobs at that time. The Hills Shire, while I have been a member, we have had, I’d say, about six major hailstorms go through. Rouse Hill, a lot of the new properties got damaged there with hailstorms. But since the 2007 hailstorm event the climate has changed that we find that we don’t have as many large number jobs, up to that stage a small job event was two hundred and fifty jobs - now we are looking at about fifty jobs as being our small one.

When you say job, you mean repair of houses?

Being called out. It is either cleaning people’s gutters or getting trees off their houses, or branches that have snapped and have overrun the house.

Can you remember any emergencies and what sort of rescue efforts were put in place?

Our main rescue areas are for when we have the heavy rains. We have causeways in the local government area, we have three main ones which cause flooding to the causeway and we are very mindful of people who sort of drive through them and get caught. There was an event of a vehicle getting washed off the causeway at Glenhaven in February a couple of years ago and there were two people trapped on top of their vehicle. Glenhaven Road is a dangerous area, the mobile reception is not good down there, so this young couple were very fortunate. The road is a short cut going from Annangrove to Kenthurst and they didn’t realise the water was as deep and they were washed off in their four-wheel drive. It was only that another vehicle had come down, and he nearly got washed off, and then he realised the vehicle was there and he was able to go and call for assistance. I then had to get my flood rescue crew together and they put their life on the line to be able to rescue those people. It was quite raging water and the area they had manoeuvre was not an easy task for them, but they were able to get those people back safe and sound. That is the day-to-day life of what an SES person is trained for these days.

How does it make you feel when you manage to save a life?

It is heart warming and the fact that we are we able to have this training. I was not on the boat, but I was able to be working and guiding my members that night. That rescue happened at about two o’clock in the morning and the members had been working since three o’clock with normal storm-related jobs, so therefore they were then put out to go and do that rescue. I was on the land, instructing them from there, but once they go on the boats the boys are all trained for that, they know what they have got to do and you leave it to them. With the fellows who did that rescue, even to this day it is still talked about, how good they feel, because it is good when we get a good result.

With the SES, as I said earlier, we also work with other agencies, so therefore there are lots of times that we are called to assist the police for missing people and it is always really good when we get a good result. If we are called off on the way we don’t get upset by it, it is a case of good, that person has been found. There have been quite a few times that we have not had a very nice ending to our search results.

 Eric Marinese, a previous S.E.S. controller with Baulkham Hills Councillors and staff.

What would be the most dramatic instance of where it hasn’t gone that well?

We had the young fellow up the Blue Mountains, it was one of the jobs that I went on, it was on search. The search in the Blue Mountains - there was a young fellow who was going for his Duke of Edinburgh and I think we searched for about five days for him and then he was found deceased. Also, with the pressures of life I have gone off to a suicidal one, the person took chemicals which reacted to the body by making the body start destructing, so it was giving off horrible body odours. So there are those sorts of things as well, it is another thing off the curve of what we do. Working on that side and by doing searching for people who have that stress in life it also brings me back to the understanding of the pressures of the young ones of today. I sort of deal with that in my day-to-day (life) as well. Being with a unit of a hundred and twenty-five members here I have multiple personalities and you get to see the pressures for the younger ones and for the older ones of the day-to-day life of living in Australia these days.


Is it all volunteer work, are they all volunteers?

Yes, we are, at the Hills Unit all members are volunteers. To my level I am still a volunteer, even though I have the hundred and twenty-five members below me.

Yours is a paid position, or not?

No, I’m a volunteer. I do anywhere between three hundred to three hundred and sixty hours a month. When I have low times people will say to me, ‘Well, why do you still do it?’ because there is quite a lot of pressure on me for managing my men and women and doing recruitment. The Hills Shire, the whole of the Hills Shire runs out of this unit, so anything that happens in Wisemans Ferry, those calls come to this unit for people to come and assist. I have had people say, ‘If it’s difficult and you have a low and you’ve got this much pressure on you,’ - and my members also see the pressure that I am under - they say, ‘why do you do it?’ My answer doesn’t take long to come back with and my answer is, ‘I want to help people and I will do everything in my power to be able to help people. No one will push me out of wanting to assist the community and others.’ That is why I am still here..

So how do you actually live, do you have an income at all?

No, my husband works, so he cares for me. It was a case of it followed through from when mum took sick and that did not take long for the decision to be made that I would stop work and take care of her. When mum was in her remission time and my stepfather was at home I would go off and work at the tennis courts and sort of try and get some extra money that way, but during the day I was always with mum.

So what is your position here now officially?

I am the Local Controller for the Hills Shire.

And you manage this whole place just by yourself?

As I said, there are a hundred and twenty-five members under me that assist when the storms and floods arrive. I have a deputy, who is Malcolm, who is my right-hand man and he is as dedicated as I am. That is where I put my hat off with a lot of the volunteers, I am fortunate in the fact that I am not working and I am able to put this extra time into running here, but the other volunteers here, the majority of them have got full-time jobs. They finish their full-time job when I put out the call and they will come and rally around to assist.

Evelyn in her S.E.S. uniform

Have you also helped in other states, in other shires?

Yes, I have been called to help our people in Victoria, I have been to Victoria twice for their storms and hailstorms. I have been to Western Australia, assisting Perth with their hailstorm. I have been around New South Wales for flooding and some storm events; the Central Coast, I have assisted with storm events there. I have also been to Queensland, around the Brisbane area twice and then I’ve also been in North Queensland. I assisted with the 2011 floods in Brisbane and also Cyclone Yasi. I was also on call to assist with Cyclone Larry.

What was the worst natural event that the shire lived through in recent years?

That would be the 2002 bushfires and also the 2007 hailstorm.

And you were involved in both of those?

That’s correct.

What are the rewards for you when you have done a successful rescue?

What I get out of it? As I’ll say to members who want to join: what you get out of volunteering it is not a monetary thing. You get more out than what you give by the feeling of wellbeing. I don’t think there is any better feeling than seeing someone’s face, of their anxiety, getting relieved by looking and saying, ‘Oh, thank goodness you are here. You are here to help me, thank you for doing that.’ I used to say to my members when they were joining, and it came to fruition one day - I had one young member who had purchased a home and he had been working for probably about five years doing the job and going out and helping other people. One night he had a water main blow in front of his house and he couldn’t stop the torrent of water going through his property and he put the call up and he said, ‘Evelyn, I now know why, when we would turn up and people’s faces would change, because once I saw those white trucks with the red and blue lights I thought, ‘Good, someone is helping me now.’ Even by me saying it I still get the goose bumps because that is what we do. We are here to help and all we ask of the residents if they could just do their minor maintenance it would make life a bit easier for us, but really we don’t knock anyone back if we can help them.

Now you have won the Hills Shire ‘Citizens of the Year Award’ this year, how does that make you feel?

Very, very humble because I am here to help people and I get the feeling of gratitude by helping. But to see that someone out there acknowledges what I have been doing is a very humbling feeling.

Has it involved you in any kind of social or other official activities?

Not as yet. In the position of being Controller I do attend functions, so the functions normally I would be attending in the capacity of being the Controller.

You have lived in the shire for many, many years now, decades in fact, what sort of big changes have you witnessed here in the shire?

With Kellyville, when we were looking at purchasing in Kellyville in 1997 I was moving away from Baulkham Hills because it was becoming very urbanised and I wanted to go back to the community rural feeling that I had grown up with, being out in Dural and Arcadia. I felt I was going to get that at Kellyville, which I have, the people out there are very community minded, but unfortunately when I moved to Kellyville, that was when the market gardens all started getting sold off and the developers started.

The property that we built, we were the first stage, we were the first house in our section. To get to our property we had to drive across a dirt road and the tortoises would be going across the road when the rains were on, they were going from one dam to the other. When the rain was there you’d have big ruts in the road and the red belly blacks would be going across the road. That now is all asphalted and now in the area that I am in, I’d say there is probably about two thousand houses.

What is the history of the SES in the Hills Shire?

The Hills, which was then Baulkham Hills State Emergency Service, we commenced in 1969 and the members at that stage, there was five members and they worked out of a little office out of the old Castle Hill Council Chambers in the middle of Castle Hill. We then moved over to Balcombe Heights and went into a little cottage with twenty members in the early 1970s. Then in the mid-1970s they moved up here to Building 20, with again twenty members

When we first started we didn’t have any vehicles and then it only took two years before they started getting some rescue vehicles, which were old vehicles. But with the Council’s support, the Hills Shire Council’s support, we have been able to increase our fleet and we now have eight vehicles and we have got, as I say, the hundred and twenty-five members. On a Wednesday evening there are seventy people here, training every Wednesday and these are all committed volunteers who give their time. The calculation I was looking at the other day - it is in the excess of thirty-seven thousand hours that the volunteers from this unit give back to the community.

You said it started in 1969 - did they have any emergency volunteer service before then in the shire?

No. In 1955, according the records, in 1955 SES became the organisation that was started. The government decided there was a need to have a volunteer organisation able to assist in times of storms and any nuclear events that could be happening. Up until then, until 1969, we were classified as Civil Defence. So in 1969 the Baulkham Hills unit started and we had one member, being Keith Grant, and he was one of the members who started at that time. He has memories of getting his own vehicle with a trailer on the back, bringing a couple of ladders and a chainsaw and some equipment on the trailer, and off he went to assist people, even in Parramatta. Keith, fortunately, is still with us and he still comes every Wednesday night and gives his time. He will be coming in shortly to give me some paperwork.

 State Emergency Services personnel at Balcombe Heights

Who pays for all the vehicles and all the equipment that you need and the computers etc?

We are going through transition. Up until now we have been working on federal funding and government funding. As I mentioned, the Hills Shire Council are very good in assisting the members and working with this unit. They have purchased a vehicle with a subsidy from the federal (government) but the majority of the money has come through from the Hills Shire Council for our vehicles, with a small subsidy coming through from the federal government.

As of the next five years there is going to be a transition that the federal government will be the ones supplying us with all our vehicles, but up to this stage Council have been supplying us with our vehicles and also assisting us with giving us the building that we operate out of and they also give us a small budget on buying some minor plant. The other funding comes from other community groups that we go to and ask if they can assist us, and also federal funding.

Do you have any sort of lotteries or any other means of getting any income?

The State Emergency Service has a group which is called the Volunteer Association and they do raffles three or four times per year. It is not run out of the Hills, it is a New South Wales SES-run organisation on that part, and with the funds that they get from that it is used for assisting the volunteers. It is like a benevolent fund if anyone is injured, to help the families, or anyone who is in need.

That is very good, excellent.  Are there any other things or activities that you have been involved with, to try and change things?

No, just doing the better for the Hills Shire. My working in the service itself, getting better vehicles and looking for more funding and things.

Okay, well thank you very much, Evelyn, for the interview and for again volunteering your time.