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Community Member News

Passion for emergency services leads to full-time role



Paul Cowles reading the Northern Rivers Times

Passion for emergency services leads to full-time role


By Samantha Elley

When Paul Cowles started his long career in emergency services, it was thanks to a note from his mum.

“I started volunteering at the age of 13 with SES in Ballina, just through something I wanted to do,” said Paul. “They never had a cadetship back in the day, I had to get a note from mum to go and join.”

Once he turned 18, Paul was then accredited to do road crash rescues and it has been an event-filled career to his most recent role as full-time Volunteer Rescue Association (VRA) Rescue NSW Regional Operations Manager.

“I’ve been to more fatals and serious car accidents than I care to count,” he said.

“The Old Pacific Highway through Tintenbar and Knockrow was notorious, as was the section between Ballina and Wardell with the old Alstonville cutting being another area.”

He does also reminisce on the lighter moments of working in emergency services.

“Driver Reviver in Ballina was fun and the public displays and even in the SES, back when they didn’t get government funding, we’d spend hours on the main street with the coin chains,” he said, describing where long lines of tape were laid out for people to stick coins to.

“It was all fun until we had to get the coins of the tape.”

Paul Cowles on the scene of a crash.

Paul Cowles on the scene of a crash.

After 14 years in Brisbane, working in compliance and with the QLD ambulance service in the operations centre as a call taker and despatcher of the ambulances, Paul moved into a professional development role mentoring training and guiding the MDs and the paramedics.

“I was involved in the setting up of the Commonwealth Games, a café explosion and other major events such as floods,” he said.

“I tried to push (emergency services) away a bit, but I kept coming back to it and I am full-time now.

“My passion would be emergency management, so it’s not going to the front line, it’s more about making sure my squads or units have got the equipment they need, the training they need, recruiting and we are retaining members after recruitment.

“The training is continually and it’s challenging. In this role, they don’t work for me, as they are volunteers, as I work for them. What they need comes through me and I channel that up and I fight for them to get what they need.”

In his second week, Paul has found the work intense, but rewarding.

“We’ve got the state rescue audit which is a pretty big thing,” he said.

“Every emergency service head delegate will scrutinise our equipment and our training records and equipment logs, safety data sheets and vehicles.”

Paul Cowles with QLD Ambulance service

Paul Cowles with QLD Ambulance service

There is a good reason for that. The Casino VRA Rescue is one of the busiest squads for a rural area.

“We are covering a significant area as Tabulam SES is offline, so we cover to Drake at the moment, which can be an hour and a half response time, depending on where we are going,” Paul said.

“The other day we were at the outside of Kyogle for a job, we’ve been to Woodburn to back up Police Rescue at a head-on there.

“Unfortunately the male died not long after we got him out.

“At one point the Casino squad had four fatal crashes with six deaths over a period of four and a half weeks.

“I was in the deputy role and still a member of the Casino squad, having been six years here.

“I’ve been to every job bar two.”

Paul admits to not sleeping well for the first 24 hours after a bad event.

“After that I am ok,” he said.

“We debrief at the job with other services and then a debrief with your crew when we get back and stay in touch with everybody.”

He said there is a system for formal counselling to support volunteers and workers with the help of a peer support officer who also works with their families.

“That’s part of my new role as well as helping manage those work/health safety incidents and major jobs,” he said.

“If it looks like it’s going to be a prolonged extrication or a potential fatal job that they’re at, then I’ll respond as well to back them up.”

Paul Cowles with VRA

Paul said the thoughts which go through his mind, when he thinks back on his experience, are the untold deaths on the roads that could be avoided.

“A lot of people die in car accidents because bystanders are there running around when all someone needs to do is just hold (the victim’s) head up and keep them breathing,” he said.

“There’s a funny one where a pie van rolled over and we thought the bloke was dead as the windscreen was smeared but the van had no markings on it.

“It was pastry and pie, it wasn’t him at all, he was perfectly ok, it was just his van covered in sh*t.”

Part of Paul’s new job is to have an understanding of what the core roles are of all emergency services and what their agency’s responsible for and how VRA can fit into that mix.

“We can support any service,” he said.

“VRA Rescue NSW is the only emergency service that does not have a core role in the state emergency and rescue management act.

“We are not the combat agency for flood and storm, that’s SES.

“We are not the combat agency for urban fire and HAZMAT, that’s Fire and Rescue.

“We are not the combat agency for rural fire, that’s RFS.

“But what we are, is the first 100% dedicated volunteer rescue agency NSW and we were born out of the NSW Police Rescue.”

Paul Cowles reading the Northern Rivers Times

Paul Cowles

Paul said some VRA branches have been around for 60 years.

The area covered by Paul’s role includes as far south as Taree and north to Tweed Heads and out to Drake.

“Under my wing we have about 200 volunteers, including non-operational members,” Paul said.

“Casino itself needs members, as does the Brunswick-Tweed branch, so if anyone is thinking about joining, visit our website at”

Paul is excited about the direction of the VRA, hence his move to the full-time position.

“The VRA is moving forward with a new commissioner and we  are all passionate with new equipment and training and I want to be on that ride,” he said.

People interested in doing worthwhile volunteering with the VRA can visit their website at where there is a link to add your details.


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