By Muriel Cooper Photos Gary Sissons
For Phil and Kimba Wall, the State Emergency Services Chelsea headquarters is their ‘Orange Family.’ Entertainer and celebrant Phil joined twenty years ago, and Kimba has been a full member for a year; the first with Down syndrome.
Between dad and daughter, it’s hard to tell who is prouder of who.
Kimba first became involved during the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009 when Phil came home from attending the scene of fires in the Dandenongs. Kimba says, “I was lying in bed thinking ‘I need to do something to thank the firies.’ Dad put together (‘The ultimate freebie bag’) for them, and I was inspired to join the SES with him.”
“Before I became a member, I was the biggest mascot for these amazing volunteers for the SES, and then one of the training ladies, Katherine, said: ‘Why don’t we make you a fully-fledged member?’ So I did the training course, and I passed with flying colours. I scared dad by going up the ladder,” she laughs.
“And she was the first one there to try it.” Phil says proudly. “She’s always been the adventurous one. At theme parks, she always wants to go on the biggest rides.”
Kimba continues: “Then I went on to the lights and generators, the daytime and nighttime services – lots of amazing feelings just to be there and help out. When I passed, I was proud of myself and proud of my orange uniform.
I also got my own helmet, gloves, and safety glasses.”
Was Kimba scared? “No,” she says. “I loved it!”
Kimba’s main role, like Phil’s nowadays, is community engagement, but she’s been on one callout to rescue baby ducks crossing the road.
What about a more serious callout? “I have to say I’d feel pretty confident,” she says emphatically. “It makes me feel really proud. I love working with the most handsome, heroic, loving dad ever.”
Kimba goes out with Phil on jobs to get photos and material for the Chelsea SES Facebook page, which Phil runs.
It’s an enormous success story. Rather than just focus on cutting up trees, Phil decided to post local events still based around SES activities. If there’s a house fire and roads are closed, Phil will post about it. The page has gone from 75,000 hits to 2.4 million hits last year. “I know if I feature Kimba in a post, it will go off,” he laughs.
“We had a big PR event for NAIDOC week, and I got to hold snakes and crocodiles,” Kimba adds.
Phil has been out on some harrowing callouts during his twenty years, including train and automobile accidents, murders, suicides, and even plane crashes. Like other services (police and ambulance), they use dark humour as a coping mechanism, but he knows he can always rely on the peer support system to debrief. “If you need to talk to somebody, they’re there. After the job, you all chat. And being an SES volunteer has its lighter moments. We have a lot of fun, too.”
Phil and Kimba have both faced challenges; Kimba in living with Down’s and Phil’s recovery from a stroke he had in 2021. Being part of the SES helped with those challenges. Kimba has gained great confidence from going through the SES training program, and ‘The Orange Family’ helped Phil’s family during his recovery. Phil came home from the hospital on his birthday and was greeted by sirens and a huge cake from fellow volunteers.
Now that Phil and Kimba are role models for others; who have been their role models?
Kimba says, “I’ve got two amazing role models – besides my mum and dad, Lisa Murphy (the founder of the not-for-profit creative arts community in Frankston, of which Kimba is a member) and Keith Lawson from the Op Shop, who has been my mentor, and I’ve been his. We’ve mentored each other. The friendship we have has grown stronger and stronger.”
Phil’s role model is the controller at the Chelsea SES, Ron Finch. “What I always loved about Ron is that whatever comes up, he’ll say, ‘We’ll get it done, we’ll find a way.’ That inspired me to say, ‘We shouldn’t ever say no we can’t do something.'”
Asked if he sees Covid and climate change affecting SES callouts, Phil says, “I overheard someone say, ‘You do realise that you’re in a growth industry,’ and we are. Three years of La Nina have given us so much undergrowth. We’re seeing more extremes of weather; we’re concerned about what this summer will bring. If we get some really hot and windy days, it’s going to become a tinder box. Spring and summer are our busiest times.”
“The other thing that changed dramatically with Covid was people driving into buildings. Before Covid, we would get an average of maybe three a year. Right now, across metropolitan Melbourne, we’re getting an average of about six a day caused by stress and other sad influences,” he says, referring to increased alcohol dependence.
How do Phil and Kimba feel when organisations with disabled ambassadors are accused of tokenism and box-ticking? Phil says, “It drives me nuts. Kimba has never been referred to as ‘Our member with Down syndrome’. She’s just Kimba, who is a valued member of our SES team.” Kimba chimes in, “I’m proud of my disability. My mottos are ‘I Love My Life’ – and ‘Best Day Ever!'”