THE weekend of the “Pasha Bulker” storm is one Jamie Vernon will never forget.
The retiring Assistant Commissioner of NSW Ambulance Service was in charge of the Control Centre in Charlestown, which was co-ordinating all of the triple-zero calls that weekend.
“We were stretched beyond imagination, particularly on that Friday night when the floods came through,” Assistant Commissioner Vernon said.
“We had 60 or 70 outstanding jobs on the board that we were struggling to cover, and we had to work with our other emergency service colleagues and other rescue services to go back to some of those addresses to see if they were still there or if they managed to wade out.”
There was flooding at Dungog and Gloucester, and on the Central Coast.
“I only went home for a few hours in those four days,” he said. “We were evacuating nursing homes on the Central Coast too, moving people who were on dialysis, and we were involved in all of that.
“It really was a massive weekend.”
To add another layer of complexity, the Charlestown Control Centre was struck by lightning during the storm, and their power went out.
But there was no room for panic.
“When the lightning hit, we reverted back to our standing orders and worked through the plan. We just did what we had to do in a calm and concise manner,” he said. “I couldn’t have done it without the people around me. It wouldn’t have happened as smoothly as it did without them.”
On Sunday, Assistant Commissioner Vernon retires from NSW Ambulance after 39 years.
He said the “significant changes” within the service since he joined, aged 19, were “many and varied” – particularly in regards to patient care.
“We didn’t even have drop down legs on the stretchers, they were a carried stretcher that we’d man-handle into the hospital,” he said.
“We used to mix up our own medicine – Dettol came in bulk. We used to make our own bandages by cutting them from a big roll.
“We had no pain relief to offer, except for what was basically dry cleaning fluid.
“The basic skills of an ambulance officer had to be quite extensive, because you had nothing to work with.”
He said the support services for paramedics had also significantly improved.
“As a paramedic working by myself in the snow fields, I did some horrific jobs back then, and a lot of that is filed away in the back of my mind, never to be brought out.
“There was no one to really talk to. You’d talk to the local publican, you’d talk to the local bloke at the cake shop – but they didn’t really get what we had seen or done.
“You’d talk to your partner, and your family.
“There is lots more to be done, but it is getting better and better in that we try to identify those people who are doing it tough, and we have a range of support mechanisms in place at present, and I think that has been a fantastic improvement.”
Assistant Commissioner Vernon was stationed at Hamilton when he moved to Newcastle in 1995. One of his proudest achievements was his role in establishing the Charlestown Control Centre, which looks after an area from the Hawkesbury River right through to Tweed Heads, and takes between 600 and 700 calls a day.
“I was the commander of the Pacific Highway for 10 years, so I knew about all the accidents and tragedies,” he said. “And I have watched, over the years, those numbers come down due to the significant improvements in road works and freeways.”
He would miss being in a position to influence improvements to patient care.
He would miss the people he worked with.
But Assistant Commissioner Vernon was also looking forward to moving back to Valentine, spending time with his family, and doing some traveling during his retirement.