New chief wants to share the emergency load

ACTSES chief Georgeina Whelan… “There became a point in my career where the demand of service life exceeded my ability to be a parent.” Photo by Danielle Nohra

ACTSES chief Georgeina Whelan… “There became a point in my career where the demand of service life exceeded my ability to be a parent.” Photo by Danielle Nohra

WITH 30 years’ distinguished service to the Australian Army, Brig. Georgeina Whelan put her family first this year and swapped one uniform for another closer to home.

As director-general of the Garrison Health Operations, Joint Health Command for the Australian Department of Defence, she was named Telstra ACT Business Woman of the Year in 2015.

At that time she was responsible for leading 54 military health facilities and 1800 staff across Australia, providing healthcare to 56,000 full-time and 15,000 part-time Australian Defence Force members.

But when her 17-year-old son had developed a significant and inoperable heart condition, she decided to move into a role where she could spend more time with her family and also contribute to the community.

As the first female, full-time chief officer of the ACTSES she hopes to make that contribution.

“There became a point in my career where the demand of service life exceeded my ability to be a parent,” she says.

“This is my way of making a contribution and also having a work-life balance.”

The ACTSES has eight full-time staff and 300 volunteers, but Georgeina wants to see the volunteer numbers double in the next five years.

“People certainly understand and appreciate what we do, but I’m not sure they understand we generate 99 per cent from a volunteer force,” she says.

“I’d like to see it expand so that we share the load. The community is growing and the needs of the community are increasing.

“The volunteers are very reliable and very committed. But we have to be conscious that they’re volunteers, so we can’t be over-reliant on them because a lot of them have families or work or are studying.

“Because of this we’re looking at developing a flexible volunteer model.”

One of the first things Georgeina is asking is: “How can we make the volunteers’ experience a more meaningful one?”

She wants ACTSES to continue offering a traditional pathway into volunteer work, but then have another option for people to go straight into an enabling function.

She’s also keen to make training more accessible for indigenous and youth communities.

“At the moment we’re exploring the idea of a school program, which will be a great experience for young people to give back to the community,” she says.

“We’re also looking at establishing corporate memberships so businesses can give back to the community, too.”

But, what’s always in the forefront for ACTSES is continuing to introduce preventative measures to reduce the likelihood of damage by educating the community and teaching it how to keep safe.

This includes education on flood and storm response, which is its traditional role, but Georgeina says ACTSES supports the ACT Rural Fire Service and the ACT State Emergency Service as well.

“We also do a fair bit of work with the Australian Police Force and domestic policing, helping them in situations such as when people go missing,” she says.

And on top of all of that, Georgeina says they support charities such as the local charity Rise Above, which helps local cancer patients.

For people interested in giving back to the community and joining the ACTSES, Georgeina says its yearly intake is closing on December 31.

“It’s a great way to give back to the community, while establishing a network of friends and colleagues,” she says.

“And, the qualifications learnt could be what helps someone stand out when applying for a job.”

The recruitment college consists of a 15-week training block where people come one night a week and a few weekends to learn basic training so they’re prepared for storms and storm damage to keep themselves and those around them safe.

“Canberra’s a really vibrant community. The people in it want to do, not just a good job, but a great job,” she says.

“I’m in awe of all the people who are holding down jobs, studying or are parents, and then volunteer on top of that.”

Volunteer intake information at


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