By Elyssa King
At home with his newborn son in 2014, Leading Senior Constable Andrew Mayfield was watching the Lindt Café Siege unfold on television with the rest of Australia. The nation was holding its breath and following the incident as it unfolded after a call was made to 000 saying all those in the café had been taken hostage by an offender armed with a gun and explosives.
The father of four’s phone rang. It was his Coordinator, telling him he needed to come to work.
“I was in there 17 hours later when it all unfolded.” He says, “My family knew what I did for a living, but they had never had the ability to see what I do live on television.”
As a member of the NSWPF’s Rescue & Bomb Disposal Unit, Andrew would suit up in a 32kg green bomb protection suit. The team is unique as the only Australian police unit to combine rescue, operational support and bomb disposal duties.
“Next thing I knew I was in the bomb suit, going through the door. There was smoke, hostages had been shot. There were alarms going off inside there and sirens. And there was a guy on the ground with a supposed bomb on his back holding a trigger.”
While the sensory overload was overwhelming, Andrew began the process of painstakingly investigating the reported explosive.
“It was one of those moments in your career when your training kicks in and you don’t think of anything else outside of that scope.”
After a few techniques were tried, the explosive was discovered to be a hoax device.
It wasn’t until he returned home the next morning, some twenty-odd hours later, when Andrew saw his family and then tried to lay down and process it that he realized that he had potentially been handling Australia’s first body-worn improvised explosive device.
Seeing footage of himself in the building brings back the surrealness of the moment even to this day.
“I see myself in the green bomb suit and I know that’s me and it’s bizarre to see. It was pretty intense, but you don’t think of all that at the time. You just try and do your job.”
It’s fair to say that no two days are alike when you join the Rescue and Bomb Disposal Unit.
Variety on the job, and the wide-ranging skillset that came with it, was a huge part of what attracted Andrew to the role.
“My mates used to give me a hard time about Police Rescue [the television series], but that is the beauty of the job. One minute you’re sitting there having a coffee and a laugh with your colleagues and the next you’re being chucked on a helicopter being sent somewhere for a bomb job, or a search or a rescue.”
The unit was founded in 1942, with the echoes of World War II raging across continents. Times were tough, with unemployment skyrocketing to an all-time high. In Sydney, people were handling the toughness of getting by in their own quiet ways. The perilous edges of local cliff faces became popular spots for the hungry looking for the perfect spot to try to catch a meal or the hopeless looking for a quiet way out.
In response to the new challenge, Police Commissioner William ‘Bill’ McKay founded the Unit to rescue people who had become trapped and to assist in the recovery of the bodies of suicide victims, particularly at The Gap.
The daunting task was handed to Sydney Harbour Bridge rigger Harry Ware, who was to become the unit’s founding father. Previously a sailor by trade, he had a strong working knowledge of ropes, pulleys, counterbalancing, anchoring and height-work. These unique insights led him to develop a simple and effective cliff rescue apparatus that could be set up and secured in a short time frame.
Originally named the Cliff Rescue Squad, Mr. Ware trained a team of police officers to do the job. The team travelled around Sydney performing high-stress rescues and recoveries with a great amount of fanfare. Later designated, Special Sergeant Ware would go on to scale thousands of cliffs faces, rescuing more than 80 people in his 20 years of service.
The Unit’s white overalls remain in tribute to Ware, a functional uniform carried over from his days as a rigger. The colour allowed members of the unit to be easily visible on cliff faces or during the night, with bodily fluids also easily spotted if they had stained the material.
In 1958, the Squad’s name was changed to Police Rescue Squad. This shift reflected the expansion of the team’s duties, being called to bushfire outbreaks, flood emergencies, rescuing people trapped in motor vehicles, undertaking searches for lost hikers and even the operation of a mobile canteen to provide meals for police engaged in long phases of emergency duties.
The unique combination of physicality and mental fortitude required to perform the role is tested during the intense three-day pre-selection course and the six-week training course. Participants learn skills in vertical rescue, road crash rescue, industrial and domestic rescue, land search operations, confined space rescue, helicopter operations, urban search and rescue and various other competencies. The Unit’s second boss Sergeant Ray Tyson captured the catch-all nature of the Unit when he said "In police rescue, there is no such word as can't. It can be done.".
In 1998 in preparation for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the Police Rescue Squad and the Bomb Squad amalgamated to become the Police Rescue and Bomb Disposal Unit, which is now located in Alexandria. There are also Police Rescue Units at Bathurst, Blue Mountains, Goulburn, Lismore, Lake Illawarra and Newcastle.
The Unit has responded to many significant events around NSW and Australia including the Wanda Beach murder investigations in 1966, Cyclone Tracy in 1971, the Granville train disaster in 1977, the Newcastle earthquake in 1989, the Thredbo landslide in 1997, the Glenbrook train disaster in 1999 and the Waterfall train disaster in 2003.
Andrew coordinated the original search for missing three-year-old William Tyrell in 2014. He spent a great deal of time at the house with members of the family in Kendall, who remain under immense scrutiny to this day.
“The search phase of what we do during rescues is very intense because everyone is looking at you to make the right decisions. It’s very mentally taxing, compared to another side of our work where you’re on ropes or off a cliff and it’s physically draining,” Andrew says.
“A big thing for myself as a human being and a police officer…the public is the same…everyone just wants answers. Everyone wants to know what happened to him. There is that little bit of hope that because he hasn’t been found that he might be alive somewhere.”
He also coordinated the recovery of six-year-old Kiesha Weippeart, whose remains were found scattered in Western Sydney in 2011. Police were praised for refusing to give up the search, but the outcome was devastating. Two different cases with two very different outcomes.
“My job as the coordinator is to organize all the teams and put them into areas and get the resources that I need so that we have covered everything and there is no stone left unturned.”
“You do feel the pressure, but you rely on the police as a unit. It makes you proud to be a police officer in that we have so much depth in what we can ask for and come together as a team to try and get the job done and utilize the skills of all the different branches of the NSWPF.”
On the morning of 25 November 2007, Andrew and a colleague attended a hotel in the Sydney CBD near the Downing Centre.
A woman in her sixties was threatening to jump from the balcony. Suicide interventions are a regular part of the Rescue unit’s broad remit of jobs. The two police officers rode the elevator to the ninth floor.
Andrew was finding a spot inside the room to anchor his harness. The equipment is used to secure both the officer and the jumper if a fall occurs. His partner went out to talk to the distressed woman when everything happened at once.
“The next thing I hear is him screaming for me, so I didn’t even have time to set the gear up. I run out and my partner has slipped down onto his stomach and is grabbing the woman by the wrist through the gap in the railing as she dangles over the balcony.”
Despite the perilous situation, the woman struggled, trying to get free, making it impossible to get her back on the right side of the railing. Thinking quickly, Andrew leaned over the railing and attempted to handcuff the struggling woman to the metal structure.
What happened next is difficult to describe let alone visualize.
“I didn’t have a harness on, I wasn’t anchored but I had no choice. I climbed over the outside of the railing and got down low to grab her.”
The combination of the struggle and the pull of gravity caused the terrified woman to slip lower than the balcony. As she slipped further, Andrew grabbed her arm, desperately gripping the railing. He remembered thinking that he hoped it wouldn’t give way.
“You really didn’t have time to think; it was just about not losing her. I was holding our combined weight and the railing, trying to keep a hold of her arm. She looked me in the eye and said ‘let me go.’ I remember saying, ‘No, no way.’”
As Andrew started to pull her up, the woman pushed her legs off the bottom railing in a last-ditch effort to escape the rescue. It dragged him forwards, so he was hanging nearly upside down off the balcony with both of his arms at full extension, feet barely on the ledge, attempting to keep them both from falling.
With the support of the other two men on the inside of the railing, Andrew was able to lift the woman back up onto the balcony and out of harm’s way. The whole ordeal was over in less than a minute.
He would later find out that the older woman was a grandmother in her sixties. She had found out earlier that day that she had a terminal illness that had sadly been passed through genetics to her grandkids. Her husband, who was attending a work conference nearby, was called and arrived quickly to console his distraught wife.
Returning to work that day, Andrew was in serious pain. He didn’t know it at the time, but the strain caused him to rupture two discs in his back. A week later, he was in surgery. The operation would put him out of action for six months. When the problem wasn’t fixed, the follow-up surgery would add another nine months to his recovery. Two years ago, Andrew’s spine was fused with bone taken from higher up in his back, a donor bone, titanium rods and screws. This time, the healing process would take a year.
Mandatory testing is required every year to ensure that the Unit’s members are physically fit enough to hold their position. Andrew worked incredibly hard in his rehab to get strong enough to wear the bomb suit again and carry all the heavy kit required as part of the job.
“I wouldn’t say I did it easy. It was tough to be told that I may not be able to be as physically active as I was ever again. It was pretty daunting, but I trained hard to make sure I was strong enough to get back to my job and not let my teammates down.”
His work mates were understandably supportive.
“The guys at work like to come past and run a metal detector past my back!” He laughs.
For his bravery, Andrew was awarded the Silver Medallion by the Humane Society of NSW. He also received the Galleghan Award, an Australian Bravery Decoration in commendation for brave conduct. He worries sometimes that the medals are a reminder for his family of how that job could have gone a different way.
“I think my wife worries that I am a bit too risky and that I put myself before other people, but you don’t think like that time,” He says, “I go there and do my job and whatever happens, happens. That’s what we do at Rescue - we put ourselves in harm’s way when it’s required.”
“I would like to hope that lady is still around for her grandkids and that I was able to help her at that time.”
At the time of writing, the NSW Government has just released and responded to the recommendations of the independent NSW Flood Inquiry, which examined the response and recovery processes executed during the catastrophic flooding event that occurred in NSW earlier this year. The PANSW was actively involved in putting forward the accepted recommendations in its submission.
A full-time Deputy Commissioner of Police role will be established to take on the State Emergency Operations Controller (SEOCON) responsibilities. It is also expected that a formalized structure will be created to support this, with permanently funded police emergency management positions in high-risk areas across the state to ensure that disaster response and recovery efforts are streamlined.
The adoption of these recommendations recognizes the diverse skill set and experience of NSW police officers. Police not only perform an essential law enforcement function, but they are also highly experienced in emergency management, cross-agency coordination and community safety.
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who understands the unique role of police in responding to emergency situations better than Sergeant Amanda Vidler.
“Police are experienced in dealing with a huge array of different types of emergencies – whether it’s a flood or a siege. We are used to working with all emergency services, displaying leadership and managing a situation for a possible successful outcome. That’s the skillset we have – we just drop everything and get the job done.”
Born and bred in Lismore, Amanda has seen her fair share of floods during her lifetime.
“The scale of emergency management and major incidents in this area is massive. Sydney gets its fair share of floods as well, but we see it on a large scale here in Northern NSW. We don’t do things in small doses up this way!”
When she joined the cops in 2006, she strategically selected locations with Police Rescue attached to them because she decided early on that was the career path she wanted to pursue.
“I love emergency management and all aspects of rescue from coordinating searches to bush work. I had previous experience working as a volunteer at the State Emergency Service during floods, so I had that background and had already been trained in several competencies required to be a Police Rescue Operative.”
After working in Ballina, the Constable transferred back home where there was a Rescue Unit. She was trained as a part-time Rescue Operator in 2009. In regional areas, it is a requirement to do part-time initially as the requirements to drop everything and go aren’t suited to a specialty role like Detectives or Crime Scene.
“In regional policing, part-time is the only pathway. We have some full-time positions around the state now in regional areas, but to get to that you need to be a part-time operator living in that area.”
“That was a very trying time doing both roles; jumping in and out of uniforms, getting your hands dirty and then going back to frontline policing. But it’s also very rewarding.”
Amanda became the Team Leader of the Unit in 2016 while still working General Duties. In the years that followed, she would go on to manage her team through successive flood crises as Richmond Police District’s Police Rescue Coordinator. In March 2017, the Lismore flood levee was overtopped for the first time, causing one of the most damaging floods in living memory.
“The jobs were coming in every few seconds through the phone lines and then they’d come to me to prioritise. I’d have to find a resource to send there and then do a risk assessment to see if they could make it to that location.”
“We had to prioritise which ones were more urgent and which we could get to. Crews were just picking up people as they went by, particularly with people stranded in houses and on top of roofs. That’s all you can do in times like that. You just do jobs on the way to another job.”
“Coordinating with limited resources and boats with that many jobs coming in was not easy, but I am a calm person and work well under pressure. I just do one job at a time.”
Hundreds of rescues were successfully undertaken, numbering more than 800.
“We did a lot of long hours, but it was very rewarding in that I was doing something that I had been trained to do and had the knowledge and skillset to coordinate the rescues during such a big event.”
There were no fatalities in 2017, and she believes that all the emergency services working during that period should give themselves a pat on the back. At the time, she was also the Deputy Emergency Management Controller in Lismore. Outside of her policing work, Amanda was also coordinating hundreds of volunteers through her ongoing work with the SES.
“You switch uniforms and you switch roles. I committed a long time ago to give my time to the SES and the community as well. It is a balancing act, but I do what I can.”
Amanda received a unit citation for her bravery and rescue response. In 2019, Amanda was recognized as the Rotary NSW Police Officer of the Year.
When we speak, she has just returned from Sydney, making the trip to purchase new equipment that was wiped out during the last major flood event earlier this year. The first flood in February broke the 2017 record water levels and peaked at 14.4 meters.
During the second flood, Amanda’s role transitioned between operational and managerial; from performing rescues out on the boats to coordinating the search for missing persons out of the EOC and liaising with other emergency services.
“It’s not just about being a hero. We have such a broad range of roles that people probably don’t see unless you come along and give rescue a go.”
The losses have been devastating. With their police station still damaged by the floodwater, the number of rescues undertaken coupled with the personal loss has taken its toll on the team. All are grateful for the help from officers from around the state who stepped up to assist. Ultimately, it is this sense of camaraderie and a passion for the job that continues to drive all the members of the Unit across the state.
The NSW Police Rescue and Bomb Disposal Unit is celebrating its 80th anniversary this month. Highly regarded as one of the best rescue units in the world, all members are extremely proud of its history. With a continual passion for evolution in technical capacity and upgraded equipment, both Amanda and Andrew are quick to encourage new members to come and get involved in one of the most challenging and unique roles in policing.
“The history just keeps evolving and the Unit just keeps growing. We have gone from doing basic cliff rescues to now flying drones and diffusing bombs,” Amanda says.
“It does take a special type of person to become a rescue operative. We look for people who are physically fit, mentally strong and are problem solvers who can come up with solutions.”
“You’ve really got to love it and everyone that works here does. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how long the job takes or how dirty the hands get. Talk to someone in the Unit or attend an open day. The skillset you get as a rescue operator is phenomenal – you just won’t get it anywhere else.”