When Rachael Moloney joined the Nippers as an eight-year-old at her local Life Saving Club in Victoria, she never imagined 18 years later she’d become one of very few female lifesavers selected to crew the country’s main rescue helicopter service.
“It's certainly competitive to get into,” says Liam O’Callaghan, Life Saving Victoria’s (LSV’s) Lifesaving Support Officer, noting that of its more than 38,000 volunteer members, only 15 are selected to join the state’s rescue helicopters crew alongside the pilots.
“There's such a large number of active patrolling members out there, and it's something a lot of people aspire to,” he says.
Moloney – one of two lifesavers alongside 24-year-old Chris Perrott newly recruited to the service – says she was attracted to the challenge of working with a team of “such highly skilled people” and adding “a very different aspect” to her 18 years’ of lifesaving experience.
“It's not like anything else I've done within lifesaving before,” says Moloney, who hadn’t flown in a helicopter until her first few days of crew training.
After going up through Nippers, Moloney achieved her Surf Rescue Certificate and Bronze Medallion (the international benchmark recognising aquatic rescue ability), before joining beach patrols, completing other safety and operational training courses and racing inflatable rescue boats at world championship level for her home club of Williamstown.
Since 2009, Moloney’s home state of Victoria has typically been serviced by one Westpac Lifesaver Rescue Helicopter although a second was brought in during the 2020/21 summer – along with additional jet skis and lifeguards – to assist with the state’s busier than usual season.
Operated under the auspices of Life Saving Victoria, the Victorian service is part of Australia’s largest non-profit aviation search and rescue outfit, which has grown, with the support of Westpac, to a fleet of 15 since the first beach surveillance helicopter started its work in 1973 out of Sydney’s La Perouse. Now operating around Sydney, Newcastle, Moruya, Lismore, Tamworth, Victoria, Tasmania, Western Australia, South Australia, the Gold Coast and the Sunshine Coast, the crews conduct both coastal patrols and respond to emergencies over land and sea.
O’Callaghan says selection as helicopter rescue crew requires applicants to meet challenging criteria, including a minimum of three years beach patrolling experience, certain lifesaving awards and qualifications, a rigorous fitness test and interviews.
Although competitive, Moloney and Perrott – both very understated about their achievement – say it’s been a fun process. Moloney also acknowledges, as only the second woman in the Victorian crew’s history, that her selection may inspire other women who may have felt intimidated to apply.
“Previously, there haven't been many females in higher leading roles, and that’s across the police, ambulance, and lifesaving services,” she says. “Once you see more females involved, hopefully it will encourage others to apply and move up the ranks."
Recognising and improving representation of women in Australia’s iconic lifesaving services has been a focus for many Life Saving Clubs for some decades.
In fact, it’s been only since 1980 that women have been able to be officially admitted as full members of Surf Life Saving Australia (SLSA) or compete for their Bronze Medallions to become active patrolling members, despite their involvement since the association’s inception in 1907. Fast forward to today, women comprise 45 per cent – or around 80,000 – of SLSA’s national membership base, although they’re estimated to make up only around 20 per cent of its leadership roles.
Given this history, it’s notable that the helicopter rescue service’s first doctor – Sue Rowley – was a woman.
Over the past few weeks, Victorian residents may have noticed a Westpac rescue helicopter has been wrapped in pink, part of Life Saving Victoria’s annual “Pink Patrol” initiative, where all-female lifesaving teams patrol the beaches in celebration of women’s equal involvement in lifesaving operations.
“LSV definitely wants to be an inclusive organisation for all and wants to show that no matter who you are, you can make strides forward in the organisation, and contribute in any of the roles we offer,” says O’Callaghan adding LSV’s women’s membership had grown markedly over the past few years to almost 50 per cent.
Moloney’s advice to other women interested in lifesaving?
“Get as involved as you can because you can make a difference,” she says.
“Just apply yourself, get as much experience as you can and keep trying until you achieve it. It's a pretty rewarding thing when you can finish your day off saying that you helped someone. You know you've made sure everyone can go home to their families.”