18 August 2023

Woonona lifesaver's 'mind-boggling' win in NSW emergency service awards

| Dione David
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Surf Life Saver Morgan Clarke

Morgan Clarke was named Overall Officer of the Year in a Volunteer Capacity and won the Surf Life Saving NSW award at the annual Rotary Clubs and Districts of NSW Emergency Services Community Awards (NSW RESCA). Photo: RESCA.

As a volunteer lifesaver for Surf Life Saving’s Woonona club, Morgan Clarke has been in many hairy situations, but one in particular is etched into her memory.

Two years ago she and her housemate and fellow club member, received an after-hours call about a person in danger 200 m offshore of Wollongong City Beach.

Living close by, they raced down to the pitch-black scene where police shone lights onto a man caught in a dangerous rip.

“You could hear him screaming for help, but you couldn’t really see him. I remember talking to police and saying, ‘Please tell me you have the choppers coming’ so we could get visibility,” she said.

“Then we got the gear we needed and took off into the ocean, because that’s what you do.”

Following the cries for help and panning through the dark for glimpses of the man in the torchlight beaming from shore, in what she described as “pure luck” she was sucked into the same rip. She caught a glimpse of his nose as he went under and was able to reach him and pull him to safety.

“Our captains are very big on preventative actions, so I was pretty lucky in that I didn’t do rescues for my first few seasons on patrol. From our perspective, a good day isn’t when you rescue a lot of people – it’s when there’s no need for it,” Morgan said.

“I will never forget that night.”

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Morgan got her bronze qualification at age 16 and has patrolled for 12 seasons since, racking up more than 600 hours on the frontline. She is the Youth Program Coordinator for Surf Lifesaving NSW (SLSNSW) and her passion is helping to arrest a downward trend in volunteer numbers.

For this service, she was named Overall Officer of the Year in a Volunteer Capacity and won the Surf Life Saving NSW award at the annual Rotary Clubs and Districts of NSW Emergency Services Community Awards (NSW RESCA).

The community-nominated awards are an important way of recognising and celebrating the selfless contributions of the state’s emergency services personnel.

Chosen as one of seven from 28 finalists from Fire and Rescue NSW, Marine Rescue NSW, Surf Life Saving NSW, NSW Ambulance, NSW Rural Fire Service, NSW State Emergency Service and VRA Rescue NSW at the ceremony earlier this month, Morgan said the win was a great honour that took her by surprise.

“I know the other three finalists, I’ve worked with them all in some capacity, I know the things they’ve done and how they give back to their clubs and communities. There were big stories and amazing people there, so to be recognised at the top, it’s humbling,” she said.

“It was totally unexpected to win in the volunteer capacity but mind-blowing to win the state award.

“Winning awards is not why any of us do what we do, but we were all very grateful to Rotary for putting on such a wonderful night for all of us.”

Awardees from the NSW RESCA gather on stage

Finalists at the NSW RESCA will attend the national awards in October. Photo: NSW RESCA.

It was a sentiment echoed by Minister for Emergency Services Jihad Dib.

“It takes someone special to put themselves in the line of danger. Our emergency services volunteers and paid professionals don’t do it for the accolades, but these awards are an important recognition of their contribution and tireless dedication and sacrifice for communities,” he said.

“Our emergency service heroes have been on the frontline during floods, accidents, rescues, and fires. Not only do they keep our communities safe, often in the face of great personal risk, but they contribute in so many other ways and show the very best of human nature.

“It is a privilege to be the Minister for both our paid and volunteer officers in the Emergency Services portfolio.”

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The Officer of the Year in a Paid Capacity was awarded to Erin Pogmore, Leading Firefighter at Fire & Rescue NSW (Liverpool). Along with Morgan, she will represent NSW at the AUSRESCA (Australian RESCA) ceremony at Government House, Yarralumla, ACT on Friday, 20 October.

The winner of the Dorothy Hennessy Order of Australia Medal Emergency Services Youth Scholarship, for volunteers aged between 18 and 25, was also acknowledged on Saturday night, along with three other finalists.

Cate Kyling, Junior Captain with Surf Lifesaving NSW based in Coogee, was awarded the $1000 scholarship for career development and further emergency services response training.

Dorothy (Dot) L Hennessy OAM, an Illawarra local who, with the support of every Minister, Commissioner and Rotary, was instrumental in piloting the awards in 2010 with the Rotary Illawarra Clubs, said she was filled with pride.

“Morgan is so dedicated and passionate about her role as a lifesaver and stepping up to any challenge she believes she can commit to and bring about the best possible outcomes,” Ms Hennessy said.

The agency and overall winners are:

  • Fire + Rescue NSW winner: Erin Pogmore – Leading Firefighter, Liverpool
  • Marine Rescue NSW winner: Phillip Causley – Coxswain, Ballina
  • Surf Life Saving NSW winner: Morgan Clarke – Woonona Club Captain, Wollongong
  • VRA Rescue NSW winner: Joseph Difalco – Ski Patroller, Thredbo
  • NSW Ambulance winner: Damian Hughes – Chief Superintendent, Associate Director, Goonellabah
  • NSW Rural Fire Service winner Michaela Anderson – Captain, Shoalhaven Communications Brigade, Greenwell Point
  • NSW State Emergency Service winner: Yasmin Jimmieson – Acting Deputy Unit Commander, Armidale
  • Dorothy Hennessy OAM Emergency Services Youth Scholarship winner: Surf Lifesaving NSW, Cate Kyling – Junior Captain, Coogee SLSC
  • Overall Officer of the Year in a Volunteer Capacity: Surf Lifesaving NSW, Morgan Clarke – Woonona Club Captain, Wollongong
  • Overall Officer of the Year in a Paid Capacity: Fire & Rescue NSW, Erin Pogmore – Leading Firefighter, Liverpool

Finalists in the NSW RESCA will attend the national awards on 20 October at Government House, Canberra. For more information visit RESCA.

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