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The NSRI’s Director of Rescue Services, Brett Ayres, shares highlights from this year’s event.

The mood at this year’s annual NSRI Station Commander’s Conference was upbeat, says NSRI’s Director of Rescue Services, Brett Ayres, with feedback confirming that it was one of the most successful of these annual gatherings – possibly owing to the fact that “this year’s conference was a little different to what came before”.

For starters, the theme – ‘Rescue Excellence’ – “was a return to the fundamentals of what our organisation is all about,” says Ayres. “In past years, themes centred around upper-management, structure and branding concerns, for example, but this year we made it all about mastering the main thing we are about: Saving Lives, Changing Lives, and Creating Futures.”

In addition, a less controlled approach was taken to the programme contents. “In previous conferences, the content was pre-packaged, so we knew exactly what the speakers were going to contribute, but this time, we invited many different station commanders to speak, and we didn’t know what they were going to say in their presentations. This contributed to an air of spontaneity and surprise. They all spoke brilliantly, the quality of the presentations was excellent, and the feedback was unanimous: this was one of the best conferences in recent years.”

The first morning kicked off bright and early with an inspiring talk by Marc De Vos, a marine scientist, formerly with the South African Weather Services, who was also a part of an expedition team on the S.A. Agulhas II to the Antarctic ice shelf, in search of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance that sank in 1914, and which they subsequently discovered on 5 March this year.

“It’s an extraordinary story. Marc shared both the story of the expedition and that of the leadership of Sir Ernest Shackleton, who led one of the most amazing survival and rescue stories that exists,” says Ayres. “As Marc was a former NSRI Station Commander, he was able to relate a lot of leadership lessons that Shackleton displayed to the role of being a Station Commander.”

De Vos was followed by talks from National Training Manager Graeme Harding and Lifeguard Operations Manager Stewart Seini, sharing insights and learnings from recently attended international rescue and lifeguarding conferences.

Hartbeespoort Dam Station Commander Arthur Crewe dispelled some misconceptions about inland dam rescues being easier than sea rescues, by sharing some hair-raising stories of rescues among the treacherous water hyacinth that grows in the dam, as well as with inland flooding. “It opened the eyes of a lot of StatComs,” says Ayres.

The recent KwaZulu-Natal floods were a prominent topic, with those involved sharing heart-wrenching yet inspiring stories of rescues, loss, successes and lessons learnt. This was concluded by Reinard Geldenhuys, StatCom of Agulhas, and Fire Chief for the Overberg District, who related the lessons learnt from the Hurricane Katrina experience in the US.

In-between, animal rescue stories and lessons were shared, as were instructional talks on rescue and station maintenance basics, ending off with another highlight: a motivational talk by Stormers coach John Dobson, on how he led his team to victory in the recent United Rugby Championship, in which they began as extreme outliers. “He touched on valuable leadership points for StatComs,” says Ayres. “It’s important to be exposed to leadership principles in a variety of contexts.”

The real value of any conference though, stresses Ayres, are the conversations that happen in the corridors between and after the talks. “Even though the day was very full – Saturday’s programme ran from 7am to 7pm – we try to structure a lot of time in-between sessions so that participants can chat and build connections.”

After all, it’s lonely at the top, as the saying goes, and station commanders are each solely responsible for their station – so this is an important time for them to meet up and receive support and peer mentorship from their counterparts.

“You want to make sure that everyone leaves feeling inspired, motivated, supported, and connected,” says Ayres, “and by the close of the conference on Sunday, I believe we got that right.”

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