Centrelink on disaster call
By HUGH KEARNEY
STAFF at the Tweed Centrelink call centre were at the forefront of efforts to help frantic Australians contact relatives and friends in the hours immediately after the Asian tsunami.
Tweed was the first Centrelink office directed to open on the Christmas public holidays to take the overload of calls coming in to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Centre manager Leigh Tynan said as news of the disaster spread, he received a telephone call at midnight on Sunday night from Centrelink headquarters in Canberra asking him to open his office.
Activating an action plan established at the time of the Bali bombing, senior call centre staff were called in the early hours of Monday and asked to assist the emergency effort.
"Everybody we called immediately agreed to give up their public holidays and come in to work," he said.
"The response was absolutely terrific and it has been a great team effort all round."
By Tuesday, staff including Emma Clement and Stan Togo had taken more than 2000 calls from relatives and friends desperate for news of missing loved ones known to be travelling in the affected disaster zone.
"Many of the callers were very emotional, concerned for loved ones missing and wanting to contact family members," Mr Togo said.
"Most of the calls the first two days were to report people missing, mostly in Thailand and Sri Lanka, but (later) the emphasis has switched to reports of people who have been located and for others volunteering their services - doctors, nurses, plumbers, all sorts - offering to go over to help," he said.
Ms Clement said despite the intensely emotional nature of many of the calls, Centrelink's staff job was to remain calm and help the callers as best they could.
"They are understandably concerned about family or work colleagues and we obviously feel deeply for them, but we don't get personally involved," she said.
Mr Tynan said there was a social worker in the office available to handle any personal difficulties suffered by staff and callers.
o?CENTRELINK Tweed customer service officers Emma Clement and Stan Togo were among staff who gave up their holi- days to answer phone calls from frantic families desperate to hear news of their loved ones following Sunday's Indian Ocean tsunami. Photo by CRAIG SADLER D90498b