19 May 2023

Bega paramedic Bob Whitney bows out after almost 50 years serving regional NSW

| Travis Radford
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Bob Whitney with ambulance.

Bob Whitney began his career as a paramedic in Dubbo in 1976 when he was 19. Photo: Supplied.

Bob Whitney vividly remembers the night his phone rang just after midnight. “Bob, I need you to go to Thredbo,” he recalls his boss saying. “We’ve got a major incident going down.”

He thought it was a joke until the caller continued: “Bob, I’m on annual leave. It’s midnight and I need you up there now.”

Reality swamped him.

“I realised then … it was genuine.”

At 11:40 pm on Wednesday, 30 July, 1997, a road embankment saturated by a leaking water main slid down the steep hillside into the NSW ski resort village of Thredbo.

It triggered a catastrophic landslide which pushed an entire ski lodge off its foundations and into a second lodge at high speed, burying 19 victims under metres of rubble.

Bob was among the first paramedics to arrive at the scene. Still pitch-black as temperatures dropped to sub-zero, he wore only his normal winter uniform.

His team had been tasked to help set up the emergency operations centre, which coordinated what would become an eight-day search and recovery mission.

“It was a sight you’d never forget and all you could hear was this massive cracking of the earth and water creaking everywhere,” he says.

“It was just like a slingshot, these two trees holding these boulders [as if they were] ready to be slungshot up into the air.”

Bob began treating injured rescue workers. But the situation soon took a tragic path. Over the next several days, 18 people were found dead.

This would become one of the biggest operations of Bob’s career, rivalled only by the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires (more on that later).

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Bob Whitney and daughter.

Bob was stationed at a small paramedic station in Wee Waa. His wife took the radio and phone calls for the station and the pair juggled raising two daughters. Photo: NSW Ambulance.

His career spanning 47 years and several different postings around NSW began in Dubbo in 1976 when Bob was 19 years of age.

“I suppose it was a calling,” he says, stumbling slightly over his words. “It was just something that made me decide to join.”

That “something” was the death of his 16-year-old sister in a car accident.

Since then, Bob says he has never once regretted his career choice. It’s given him too many memorable experiences to include in this article and taken him (in chronological order) to Gilgandra, Queanbeyan (where he worked alongside his future father-in-law), Tamworth, Wee Waa, Goulburn, Liverpool and finally, the Bega Valley.

“Regional NSW has been my love and I think that serving regional NSW is just something I’ve always loved,” he says.

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One of Bob’s longest and most treasured postings was in Goulburn at an “exceptionally busy” station where he spent 20 years of his life and career.

“Clinical excellence was our mantra and that’s where I obtained my advanced life support [qualification] with the other 14 paramedics,” he says.

Bob was promoted to inspector and after a stint in Sydney, moved to the Bega Valley for the last 12 years of his paramedic career.

But his last posting hasn’t been without difficulties. The Black Summer bushfires threatened his new home in 2019-20 and tested the mettle of his paramedic brethren.

“These paramedics stood up [and] came to work every day, tired [and] exhausted, and still served their community,” he says.

“Nobody truly understood what [they] went through, turning up for work knowing that their properties were under threat.”

Bob Whitney and wife.

Bob and his wife are looking forward to travelling more in retirement. Photo: Supplied.

But rather than the bushfires or some other harrowing operation convincing Bob to retire, it was a routine refresher course.

“I sat back after doing my refresher course and thought, ‘I’m really at a point now where I’ve done everything I want,'” he says.

“It felt good … and since I put my paperwork in, I’ve not rethought it. I felt calm and even now talking about it, I still feel it’s right.”

Bob says he’s looking forward to travelling more with his wife (especially cruising), spending time with his family and relaxing.

He is currently on long service leave before he officially retires in March (2024) but, there may be another Whitney to carry the torch.

“My granddaughter, since the age of eight and she’s now 14, is still saying, ‘Pa, I’m going to be a paramedic.’ She’s never shied from it.

“It’s not because I’ve promoted that to her. It’s just something she’s always said and she still says it today, and I’m so proud of her.”

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