Our silent protectors

Our silent protectors
Words by Janie Barton

You rarely see them, but if you did you wouldn’t be able to recognise them. It’s their job to help the First Response Officers and Investigators keep us safe and secure, yet most people don’t know they exist.

They are the highly skilled Cairns Special Emergency Response Team (SERT) of the Queensland Police Service, who are constantly training and working to ensure the community is safe by providing a range of specialist skills that enhance the capability of the QPS.

Although unable to divulge the size of the Cairns based unit, SERT operators are called upon for specialised tasks such as counter terrorism response, apprehending high-risk persons and hostage/siege incidents.

“The role can be highly demanding,” said a nine-year veteran of the Cairns’ SERT team, who cannot be named for security reasons. “It takes a highly motivated individual to do this job.”

The path to becoming a SERT operator is demanding. There is a minimum of two years’ service as a general-duties police officer before applying for the one-day SERT selection process. This testing determines the minimum fitness standard of the applicant and is the gateway to progressing into the more arduous SERT selection phases.

“Once you complete the one-day testing and if you’re successful, you’re invited back for a three-day selection process,” said the Cairns operator. “And that is the real grueling part.”

The three-day selection course has been continually refined and enhanced over the 24 years that SERT has existed in a full-time capacity. It tests physical and mental endurance and, most importantly, the attitude to never give up. Sleep deprived along with mental and physical exhaustion, applicants participate in back to back activities that replicate the SERT operational environment.

“It’s about team mates and looking after them, rather than thinking about your own discomfort”, said the Cairns operator.

If successful, candidates then undergo three months of training where, along with rigorous physical training, they learn a number of specialist skills including marksman training, building search techniques, high-angle roping and a large range of other specialised skills.

Applicants learn how to adapt to environments, weather conditions and constantly evolving situations. They endure constant high-stress situations and face phobias, such as claustrophobia and acrophobia.

So why do they do it?

“Generally, the team has to be very motivated and keen, and those incidents where we help people who are in need are really rewarding,” the Cairns officer said. “At the end of the day, we are part of the QPS and someone has to undertake these particular duties.

“That’s why there’s a vigorous selection process to ensure that the operators are ready to take on tough and challenging tasks. They also have to love the team environment because we all look after each other.”

The officers in Cairns SERT are on call to respond to high-risk events at any time and serve the community by providing a high level of expertise which exceeds normal police capabilities.

SERT are often called to provide support to police operations during high-risk incidents and are used to contain threats, provide emergency tactical intervention and a safe environment for police negotiators. They are there to support their police colleagues.

“We have to be ready to go at all hours whether it is by a plane, helicopter or vehicle,” the Cairns officer said. “It can be tough on partners and families. One minute you are having dinner at home and the next you are on a job and away for a couple of days.”

The Cairns unit has been deployed to help with security incidents in major cities such as Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Darwin.

Dealing with dangerous situations and witnessing tragic events is something that all Police Officers have to deal with.

“We have on-call psychologists and councilors available and our partners and families are very understanding and supportive,” the Cairns officer said.

“You never know what is around the corner or what you will be doing from one day to the next. That’s just the nature of the job. Luckily, there is really good camaraderie in our unit. We have a great group of guys who all love what they do.”