Survive the Drive: Gloucester SES's Sid Johnston on the sad reality of being first on scene

John ‘Sid’ Johnston lives near the Bucketts mountain range in Gloucester
John ‘Sid’ Johnston lives near the Bucketts mountain range in Gloucester

“The worst thing about responding to a motor vehicle fatality is waiting for the investigators to show up,” Gloucester Rescue NSW State Emergency Service (SES) volunteer, John ‘Sid’ Johnston explains.

He pauses for a moment before continuing.

“Sitting for four or five hours by the side of the road, in the dark, with somebody’s son or daughter, and all that’s going through your mind is what the family is going to go through.”

Sid was one of the first members of the Gloucester unit of the SES when it formed back in 1981.

With only one police officer and one paramedic in town, Sid said there was a call for a unit to be formed after there had been an increase in farm and road accidents.

The police sergeant and the mayor approached residents with certain skill sets to join the other volunteers and due to his engineering background, Sid was one of them, joining about six months after the inception.

“We lost five volunteers after that,” Sid explained.

Since he started, he has responded to around 75 – 100 motor vehicle accidents (MVAs) and he has known the majority of people involved.

Sid doesn’t talk about how attending a fatal accident affects him, believing that if you talk about it too much it shows it’s getting to you.

“Five years ago, I wouldn’t have talked about this,” he said. “I’ve tried to shut it out.”

But others have noticed how it affects him when he has attended a MVA where someone has been killed.

“He had a dog he used to tell,” Sid’s wife, Cheryl recalls.

“I always knew it was really bad when he would go for a walk at night,” she said. “He still had to get up and go to work in the morning.”

Sometimes it catches him out, especially when he is driving by himself.

On his way into Gloucester he passes three fatality sites and in the first 20 kilometres between home and Taree, on the Bucketts Way, he passes 15 sites.

“Ninety per cent of them were local,” Cheryl said.

Sid has attended a MVA where two of his eldest son’s best mates were killed.

While his three children were living at home and he would get a call out, he would always check their rooms to make sure they were there.

“Even if I knew they were,” he said. “Just to be sure.”

Sid is trained in 18 different qualifications, including being able to instruct other volunteers and did he initial training in Newcastle, with the Gloucester unit forming one of the first road rescue teams in NSW.

He has noticed the amount of fatalities have dropped over the years with the increased safety measures incorporated in the new cars, but it doesn’t decrease the amount of accidents.

“It’s still about the person behind the wheel,” Cheryl said.

Sid said the SES has a support system for the volunteers and admits to using a counsellor once, many years ago, but mostly he talks to men in his unit.

“It’s a close knit group,” he said. "It’s a case of asking: Are you okay? and having regular check ins for a period of time after.”

Becoming part of the NSW SES has changed Sid’s outlook about driving, acknowledging that it has slowed him down.

“I think everyone should do a driving course,” he said.