John Koutras, right, Brandon Sipthorp, Simon Halman, Brody Thrum, Cheryl Abela, Kerry Free, Steve Caddies, Jessica Greenaway, and Kyle Cullis.

By Pam Kiriakidis

WHEN John Koutras saw the assistance he needed during a storm in the Dandenongs a few years ago, it was his calling to take initiative and join the Victorian State Emergency Service, VICSES.

Mr Koutras went on to complete standard crew training at VICSES Kilmore, ticked all the boxes to work as a driver on the unit’s light rescue, and visited other units to gain knowledge about community expectations and workflow. 

He soon began to realise the unit had not strayed far from its roots, resembling Civil Defence-era, where response was the main focus, and the sign-up sheet was predominantly men. 

“That was very much a rigid army style response that may not suit everyone,” he said.  

Although Mr Koutras had only been at the unit about 18 months, with zero management experience, he had worn other caps that led him to become unit controller during the pandemic.

Mr Koutras said he had always been determined to make cultural and structural change that aligned with the community’s needs.

“As the mayor of Whitehorse, I witnessed first-hand the importance of cohesion between the people who make decisions and the organisations that deliver those decisions,” he said.

“I had my plans in my head. I put them down on paper, and I put in a really qualified team and basically picked out their management and personal skills.”

In the past two years, the club’s membership has increased to more than 40 members, including 16 women and eight juniors.

The unit now offers a day-time program for women, which encourages women and promotes inclusivity to the workforce. 

“I saw immediately, before coming in charge, that there was a gender imbalance at the unit,’ Mr Koutras said.

“It is critical that women are in emergency services, and are at the forefront, skilled up and welcomed in emergency services.

“A team that understands each other is a team that can focus on the job at hand.”

Core values have become part of the unit, teaching volunteers about professionalism when they join Kilmore SES.

“When you walk up to the door you may be a volunteer. But when you walk through that door you made that choice, and you’re a professional,” Mr Koutras said.

“Call it a professional volunteer, you have chosen to be there, and chosen to accept the values we live and work by.”

Besides promoting equality and values, the unit underwent changes in management – creating a deputy controller for new members, facilities and buildings, and another for administration.

To cope with an expanding task and mission load, Mr Koutras included new systems that meant tasks such as incident management reports were to be completed at the unit. 

Increased demand

VICSES Kilmore call-out times have sky-rocked within the past year.

Since inheriting a dual response that allows the unit to offer assistance to nearby units, Kilmore received 513 requests, including 27 incidents. 

During the unit’s progression, Mr Koutras has noticed the community’s heart-warming response.

Donations have escalated, with the unit receiving $50,00 from the Bendigo Bank during the past two years, which has been dedicated to expanding the workforce and training area.

“As the community becomes more aware of what we do and how we do it, we will be able to provide the community with better resources and response to emergencies,” Mr Koutras said.

Community preparedness is a crucial element of emergency response, according to Mr Koutras.

After he had returned from his deployment to the NSW floods, he and four members began training to become community engagement facilitators.

The facilitators were then invited to host a stall at Kilmore Village, talking to residents about safety and providing emergency kits. 

“That community engagement model that we do and practice is about going and talking to schools and the community, saying it’s not all about the alarms and sirens, it’s about preparing the community,” Mr Koutras said. 

Mr Koutras said he was aiming to find funding to build a new ‘state of the art’ facility for Kilmore SES, providing for the future of the fast-growing population. 

But for now, he is honoured to be part of a team where he can watch volunteers go from the starting line to a hard-working team member.

“That self-pride that they get is amazing, you see it, and to me it is very heart-warming to see people who never thought they would not achieve something,” Mr Koutras said. 

“It’s about me finding a lot about them to see how they can benefit the SES.”

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