It is about 7.20pm on Thursday when Natalie Stanway’s pager sounds.
“Car accident. Possible persons trapped. Multiple vehicles versus bus,” the message reads.
Sure enough, on top of a hill in Adam Street, just metres from Bendigo’s State Emergency Service headquarters, a driver has performed a u-turn into the path of an oncoming bus.
The impact has thrown the bus driver from his vehicle.
Another driver has swerved to avoid the collision, only for their car to hit a brick wall.
They are trapped in the vehicle.
But no one is hurt. This is an SES training drill and the cars and bus have been meticulously arranged to create a makeshift crash.
The drivers are mannequins awaiting rescue by two trucks of volunteer members, all of whom are on scene well-within the eight minutes SES units get to respond to an incident.
While it might sound like an elaborate set-up for a training exercise, Ms Stanway said it was a familiar situation.
The Bendigo SES officer remembered a recent case of a car turning in front of a tram near Lake Weeroona.
While no one was hurt, Ms Stanway said it could have been very serious.
Statistics collected by the unit show volunteers were called to 60 incidents of people trapped in vehicles in 2015, making up 15 per cent of the year’s jobs.
That figure does not look like lessening in 2016.
“This year has been extraordinarily high in terms of rescues,” Ms Stanway said.
Every one of those could have been avoided, with Ms Stanway refusing to use the word “accident” to describe traffic incidents, opting for “crash” instead.
“In all the crashes I’ve been to, there’s been some element of human error, whether it be fatigue, or drugs, or inattention, or thinking you have greater skills than you actually have,” she said.
SES volunteers are asking drivers to think about what they confront when attending crash sites.
One of those volunteers to respond most frequently is David Lee, who tells of lasting impact some crashes have on him.
“You do get flashbacks when you’re travelling along a road where you’ve attended an accident,” he said.
“Or there’ll be an ad on TV, or a smell, that takes you back to a certain situation.
“You tend to put them at the back of your mind but sometimes it does take longer to get over an incident, especially when kids are involved.”
But there was no such trauma during Thursday’s training exercise.
SES members, many of whom were operating equipment for the first time, were able to remove ‘patients’ from the scene within 40 minutes.
A growing population and widening suburban sprawl is challenging Bendigo’s State Emergency Service unit, with the volunteer operation seeking funds to build a better-equipped headquarters.
The Adam Street SES depot was built in the 1970s, and has since been extended 17 times.
But unit controller Fiona Beecham said her 50 volunteers, who serviced an area reaching from Ravenswood to Serpentine, and from Axedale to Goornong, had outgrown the current site.
“To train that many people here is difficult,” she said.
“It’s getting older, and the roof is starting to leak in a couple of spots,” she said.
On top of a refurbished facility, Ms Beecham said there was a need for satellite teams stationed in areas like Epsom and Strathfieldsaye that are able to respond quicker to calls for help.
But the expansion will prove challenging in a climate that has already seen several Victorian councils withdraw funding from their local SES units.
In 2014, the Campaspe council enacted a sunset clause that would see its funding cease, while the Central Goldfields shire pulled its entire SES contribution in December last year.
The changes occurred despite a long-standing memorandum of understanding between local and state governments to match each others’ SES contributions.
While Ms Beecham said her unit enjoyed a strong relationship with the City of Greater Bendigo, the unit could not survive on government funds alone.
“That has always left us with a shortfall, and that shortfall has blown out,” she said prior to her team’s Thursday night training session.
Both the council and state government allocated about $14,500 to Bendigo SES this year, but media officer Natalie Stanway estimated the total cost of operation to reach $48,000 in 2016.
Fundraising efforts and community donations like this Saturday’s Alexandra Fountain tin rattle aim to cover the $19,000 gap in funding.
Asked whether the City of Greater Bendigo was committed to ongoing financial support of its SES unit, spokesman Tom Laurie said: “Council’s current position is that it provides an annual allocation to the SES.”
But Ms Beecham said more funding was critical to the service’s future, calling the unit a “second home” for its volunteers.
“We spend a lot of time up here,” she said.
The gift that keeps on giving
A businessman who gifted secondhand cars to train Bendigo emergency service workers benefited from his kind deed when SES volunteers rescued his mother-in-law from a wrecked car last Christmas.
Low Cost Cars owner Ray Pignataro donated two unwanted vehicles from his yard to the city’s SES unit in November.
“The cars were just going out and being crushed, but they were too good for that," he said.
“For us, they take up space, but it helped somebody else.”
Little did he know how much the gesture would benefit his own family.
Just weeks after Mr Pignataro’s donation, his mother-in-law, Jessie Wade, collided with another vehicle when leaving a Golden Square shopping centre on Christmas Eve.
Ms Wade’s car was spun across the road and into the gutter.
When she was unable to get out, police called for SES assistance.
“They couldn't do enough to help me,” she said of the rescue team.
They started straight away, telling me, ‘we're going to chop the door off’.”
She was rolled out of the wreckage and escorted to the hospital in an ambulance within an hour.
On Thursday night, Mr Pignataro reunited with Natalie Stanway, one of the SES officers who freed his mother-in-law.
He thanked them for their quick response.
“They were just wonderful with Jessie,” he said.
“They were keeping her calm while they cut the car to get her out.
“The accident really hit home how beneficial giving the cars was,” Mr Pignataro said, since donating another vehicle to the emergency service.
Unit controller Fiona Beecham lauded community members who gave their cars to the SES, saying the vehicles “kept members sharp”.
“We put them in all sorts of positions; some on their side, some on their roof, some with other vehicles slammed into them,” she said.
“We couldn’t do it without the help.”
‘We are a family’
While leaving home to help strangers in need could strain relationships between volunteers and their loved ones, Bendigo SES workers are making sure they still put family first.
The next occasion Braden Verity answers a nighttime page for help, he will leave behind his sleeping wife and 11-month-old daughter.
But Mr Verity, who previously worked with the Frankston SES, had taken a step back from active duty since the birth of his child.
“Before that, I was quite active, a training officer and going out on a lot of jobs,” he said.
“But the unit has been very accommodating.
“You’ve got to know where your priorities are: family, work, then SES.”
Still, he said his family understood his sudden departures meant he was assisting people in need.
Tash Roussel, who joined the SES one month ago and is still completing her basic training, also has a young family.
Although she first wanted to join the service a long time ago, she waited until after her daughter’s arrival and the completion of her full-time studies.
“Just this week, my daughter’s been a bit ill, so it’s been a bit of a stretch,” she said.
“But my partner is very understanding so we make it work.
“Obviously family and personal life comes first, even in the SES.”
But the unit also provided members a sense of belonging. Karen Gloster joined the SES in Bendigo as an operational support officer one year ago, assisting the Bendigo unit’s fundraising efforts and staffing its kitchen.
“I’m single and getting older, so it’s harder to have community friends and connections, especially when all your family has left home,” she said.
“It’s filled that part of my life and I love coming to work here.”
She also enjoyed her interactions with children and culturally-diverse community members who were beginning to learn about the role of the SES.
A former soldier, Ms Gloster said the SES attracted people similar people to the armed forces, sharing values of camaraderie and commitment.
“They’re people who want to do things for their community,” she said.
Money keeps wheels turning
Drivers and pedestrians passing through Bendigo’s Charing Cross on Saturday will be met by an army of orange-uniformed tin rattlers, collecting cash for the city’s State Emergency Services unit.
Volunteers will man the Alexandra Fountain intersection from 8am until 4pm, with proceeds covering the cost of the unit’s fuel, uniforms, equipment repair and vehicle maintenance.
For the first time, friends and families of SES volunteers will help with the collection as emergency workers remain on call for jobs around their region.
Last year’s tin rattle was interrupted by two traffic incidents.
Support staff will also prepare and distribute lunches so volunteers do not need to buy their own.
Anyone unable to donate tomorrow but who would still like to give to the SES can transfer funds directly into the Bendigo unit’s bank account.
Its account and BSB numbers are available from the ‘About’ page on their Facebook profile.
The memory of water
For many volunteers in Bendigo’s SES unit, their most memorable moments in orange came fighting floodwaters.
Braden Verity recalled travelling to Nathalia in March 2012 as the torrential rain threatened to inundate the town.
“The entire community, SES, CFA, ambulance and police all got involved in building a giant sandbag wall that stopped the water getting through,” he said. “It was a significant achievement.”
Flood memories also stayed with David Lee who still remembered the five kilometre-long earth levy built at Murrabit in January 2011.
He was able to calm one elderly resident nervous about opening her home to the SES.
“She was very wary of letting people in and scared of what it was going to cost, he said. “But we were able to sit her down and tell her not to worry.”
In 2015, 80 people called on the SES for help with flooding, the most frequent reason for call-outs after building damage.