Duck’s 50 years of the service to ACT SES

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There have been freak floods and wild storms, deadly bushfires, and stray hikers whose misadventures have sparked frantic rescue efforts.

And for 50 years, Duck – never Graeme, always Duck – has been there, dressed in his bright orange SES overalls, ready to lend a hand.

Duck was this month awarded a special ACT Emergency Services Agency medal in recognition of his 50 years of service.

He’s the first volunteer to reach the milestone. In fact, the award, presented at a ceremony at Government House, was created especially to honour his achievement.

The Canberra Times this week sat down with the 67 year old at his home in Williamsdale, south of Tuggeranong, to chat about responding some of the ACT’s major disasters, the pain of unsuccessful rescues and the day he spent hours carefully extricating a fallen tree from a elderly woman’s home in order to save her beloved plant.

But first. Why Duck?

“When I was 17-18 I used to ride motorbikes around and one day the rubber ducky song came on the radio and I started singing, making a bit of a fool of myself,” he says.

“When I woke up the next morning, my mates had painted a rubber ducky on the back of my leather jacket. It just stuck.”

At the same time as he was gallivanting around the territory on his motorbike, Duck was patrolling Casuarina Sands as captain of the waterway’s old surf lifesaving club.

As the winter of 1968 approached, the lifeguards were encouraged to join Civil Defence to keep themselves busy during the cooler months.

They did, and in the process doubled the size of the agency from eight to 16 members.

They were taught to construct makeshift shelters in preparation for a possible nuclear disaster.

Disaster did strike, but it was of mother nature’s, not man’s, making.

Graeme "Duck" Tonge, pictured left, receives a long service award to ACT SES from Govenor General Peter Cosgrove

Graeme “Duck” Tonge, pictured left, receives a long service award to ACT SES from Govenor General Peter Cosgrove

“The first major disaster I was called to was when people got washed off the crossing in Woden [in 1971],” he says. “We spent three days walking with mud up to your waist hoping like hell that you didn’t step on someone’s body.”

Employed by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Duck was required to pull on the orange overalls at a moment’s notice.

He filled various roles as the agency evolved, including team leader and unit commander.

The emergency incidents have been many and varied – but some stand out.

Like the time he helped rescued a 15-year-old boy whose leg had been wedged between two rocks for 19 hours at Baroomba Rocks.

“It got to the point where we had a doctor at the cliff, with a needle in his hand ready to knock him out and cut off his leg,” he says.

Graeme "Duck" Tonge, pictured above, has chalked up 50 years service to the ACT SES - the first volunteer to reach the milestone.

Graeme “Duck” Tonge, pictured above, has chalked up 50 years service to the ACT SES – the first volunteer to reach the milestone. Credit:Karleen Minney

“One guy said ‘Let’s try one last thing’. We cut up these drink bottles and slid them in between his legs. We poured this foam down the side and then lifted him up – he popped out like a cork. We stretchered him down the mountain and he got off and walked away.”

Good days have been counterbalanced by bad, sometimes tragic ones.

Duck remembers the first dead body he recovered, and the pang of guilt as he pondered whether more could have been done to save their life.

He grappled with similar demons after a work colleague went missing near Murrays Corner.

“They never found him and there was a bit of confusion as to which areas had been searched,” he says. “A year later they found him in an area that we should have been searching. You make a decision on the day – if you made a different one, could you have saved someone’s life?”

Duck said he’s got one, maybe two years left. He’s got a “gammy leg” which restricts his movement, and the bureaucratisation of the emergency service has changed the role – for better or worse.

He questions if the “lure” of 50 years’ service meant he hadn’t called it quits earlier.

But then he gets talking about the friends he’s made, the live’s he saved and changed. The reasons he keeps pulling on his orange overalls.

And then, just as The Canberra Times is preparing to head home, he remembers that one day in Tuggeranong which, better than any other, embodies the joy of the job.

A large tree had fallen onto an elderly woman’s home, and she was refusing to enter for fear of the roof collapsing.

“We did an inspection and it was pretty safe, so we got her inside and she just burst into tears and said ‘Oh my Rhododendron’ – which was sitting right under the tree,” Duck says.

“We spent a lot of time pulling the tree down and we didn’t break a petal. The joy in her face when she saw her rhododendron … it was worth the extra time.”

“That is what we’re here for. Not only to help people, but to make sure they are happy with the job that we do.”

Dan Jervis-Bardy is a Canberra Times reporter.

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