At 8am on New Year's Eve, I enacted IRT's critical incident management team at our head office in Wollongong. With the largest aged care presence in the Illawarra, Shoalhaven and Eurobodalla regions, we always knew bushfires were a potential risk to IRT. But with extreme weather conditions and catastrophic fires predicted, we faced a large-scale threat.
What the NSW Rural Fire Service maps revealed later that morning was worse than anyone expected. Eight of our NSW South Coast sites were under direct bushfire threat - that included seven aged care centres and seven retirement villages. That meant many elderly residents and employees at risk - in Nowra, Culburra, St Georges Basin, Milton, Batemans Bay, Moruya and Dalmeny. In Wollongong, we held urgent talks with governmental disaster agencies and emergency services teams.
At each site we activated our emergency plans and began planning how best to support our people and our residents. Our customer service team called families and next of kin. Managers got word to their teams, suspending home care services and cancelling all non-essential travel. At site, our frontline teams did their best to keep residents calm while preparing for possible evacuation. Others door-knocked retirement village residents, helping them pack overnight bags and gather medications. We followed RFS advice to shelter in place.
By late afternoon, the roads were closed and the skies were dark. Reports coming in from frontline staff were frightening. Mains power was out and communications were patchy. Embers were travelling many kilometres in front of the fires.
Resources were stretched. Communities were isolated. Food and fuel was short. We knew food and staffing would quickly become an issue. A team of Wollongong-based RNs and other essential staff prepared to head south once the roads opened. Our catering team prepared a food delivery van, to run the gauntlet as soon as possible. In our critical incident room, we assessed the situation on an hourly basis, and planned accordingly.
The critical incident management team was in place for two weeks as the bushfires raged. The fires were fanned by winds that changed direction without warning, increasing the threat level at our South Coast sites. Our Dalmeny aged care centre and retirement village was evacuated between 3 and 6 January; all our other sites sheltered in place on the advice of emergency services. I am proud to say that when the fire threat was at its most terrifying, our people on the ground stepped up. I'd love to acknowledge every person who played a part by name. But in the interests of space, an overview will suffice.
I want to recognise the frontline staff who evacuated their own homes, then turned up for work later that day. The local managers who took charge, and worked around the clock to ensure their teams and residents were safe. The nurses and care workers who came in from leave to care for our most vulnerable residents. The two kitchen hands who cooked and washed up for 48 hours straight, catering for more than twice as many people as normal. And when they weren't cooking, they cared for residents, walking the floor with people living with dementia who were unsettled by the extra activity on site.
In the end, we lost no residents and no buildings. This is due entirely to the dedication and commitment of our staff.
Staff in Wollongong who offered to drive south to relieve their colleagues not knowing what danger they would encounter. Staff who came in early or left late or wouldn't go home until they knew everyone was safe. People who just kept working, never asking when their shift would end. Anyone with a bus licence, who offered to help transport residents. People who offered spare beds to evacuated colleagues. Those who gave, in their own way, and in their own time. My own niece, who works for a generator hire company in Queanbeyan, who loaded an enormous generator on the back of her semi-trailer and trucked it in to IRT Crown Gardens at Batemans Bay.
I'd also like to acknowledge the emergency services teams and community members who came to our aid - the businesses who gave food and services for free; the locals who delivered equipment, hosed down buildings and cut sandwiches; Estia Dalmeny who took in some of our residents; and the fire fighters who defended our lives and property. In the end, we lost no residents and no buildings. This is due entirely to the dedication and commitment of our staff. The stories of their heroism are humbling.
We are preparing to thank and honour them. At the same time we are preparing for the future. We know that this unprecedented fire season is not yet over, and the full cost of the disaster is not yet counted. For now, and on behalf of our residents and customers, the communities we serve, and the families who entrust the care of their loved ones to us, we thank you all.
Patrick Reid is the IRT Group CEO.