29/05/2024 12:57 PM

NSW State Emergency Service (NSW SES) is recognising National Reconciliation Week this year by continuing to learn about the shared histories and cultures of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members and reflecting on their contributions and achievements in keeping our communities safe. 

National Reconciliation Week is held annually from 27 May to 3 June and is a time for all Australians to explore how they can contribute to achieving reconciliation in Australia and work toward a more unified country.  

Currently, approximately 4% of NSW SES members identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander. NSW SES continues to harness the diverse knowledge, skills and lived experience that every member brings to the Service and welcomes the contributions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in keeping communities safe from storms, floods and tsunamis. 

One such amazing Indigenous volunteer is Brett Bickerstaff, who is a volunteer with the NSW SES Bankstown Unit. 

For the last year, Brett has donned his orange uniform and helped respond to pre-flood alerts, flood damage assessment, storm damage requests, community engagement and training across the Bankstown area.  

“I saw the impact of the floods on TV in 2020. I noticed that there weren’t enough members, so that’s when I decided to put my hand up,” Bickerstaff said. 

“You don’t realise how much help is needed. Without volunteers nothing gets done and that’s the downfall. You want to try and resolve things and help the community sooner rather than later.” 

More importantly, he is a proud Wiradjuri man, with his mother, grandmother and great grandmother (now all deceased) and his people coming from the Mudgee area out to Dubbo. 

“Most of my family is in the Wiradjuri mob out in the Western Zone, though I’ve got family in Newcastle and Armidale in the Northern Zone and Shepparton area just outside the Southern Zone as well,” Bickerstaff said.  

I obviously work in different areas, so I get to see different mobs and have a yarn to see what’s happening. We all obviously lead different lives in different places, so you find out what’s going on in the area and catch up on family as well, which is a good thing.” 

Brett is doing his best to share his First Nations knowledge with some of his current unit members.  

I’ve been talking with a few unit members and have shared what to say and the best way to talk with mob. I’ve shown them the best way of addressing people respectfully and what they should physically do when they go onto Country.” 

“We need to do more community engagement. We need to connect with mob and show them that we’re here to help and that we’re not here to go against them. We need to have a constant genuine connection so that mob can recognise members and build a genuine connection and familiarise each other to build a great network and build a relationship that will make operational work easier,” Bickerstaff said. 

Brett has also found support at his current Unit. 

I’ve got a brilliant Unit Commander, Dave Niven and Deputy Unit Commanders, Graham Tomkinson, Grahame Stevens, Tony Harb, Tegan Askwith and David Drake. They are very supportive. I couldn’t wish to have better management that stick by me, and I really thank them for that.” 

Reconciliation Australia’s theme for 2024, is Now More Than Ever and is a reminder to all of us that no matter what, the fight for justice and the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will —and must —continue. That’s something that resonates with Brett. 

“You want to respect the culture irrespective of nationality or who you are. We can only improve to make things better.” 

We’ve got to make sure that people are comfortable in all areas. It doesn’t matter what nationality you are or what mob you’re from, once we put on that orange uniform, we are all one. When we take it off, we are still all one. We are all human. We’ve got the same colour blood.” 

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