‘Very clean bathrooms’: Border police see upside of life under canvas

Bring some extra bedding and a sense of humour. That’s the message from Acting Senior Sergeant Colin Shepherd, one of the more than 700 officers deployed to work on the border checkpoints between NSW and Victoria over the festive season.

Usually in charge of stations in the Bass Coast region or working in the Latrobe Valley area, Senior Sergeant Shepherd has spent the past week living in a tent and working on checkpoints along the border to prevent the spread of COVID-19 back into the state.

Acting Senior Sergeant Colin Shepherd in his tent at Cann River.Credit:Rachel Mounsey

Part of the first deployment who were sent to Cann River in East Gippsland with just hours notice, Senior Sergeant Shepherd is due to return home on Christmas Day when the next round of officers arrive.

And despite being away from family in the lead up to Christmas there have been some upsides to his nights under canvas.

"Unlike normal camping grounds, the bathrooms here are being cleaned regularly due to COVID-19. It’s not been the usual experience," he said.

After the COVID-19 outbreak on Sydney's northern beaches, people from NSW's COVID-19 red zones are currently unable to travel into Victoria and all other travellers from NSW, or returning residents, require permits. Trucks get a free pass through the border but all other vehicles need to be checked.

A marquee being set up at the police camp in Cann River.Credit:Rachel Mounsey

"I arrived alongside about 40 other members on Sunday as part of the first deployment after receiving a call earlier that day. The fires earlier this year took a real toll on my fellow colleagues in [East Gippsland] and thinking about what they’ve been through the past 12 to 18 months, I knew they needed a break," he said.

"Initially it’s tough because it’s a change of environment and a change of work pattern but after 24 to 48 hours you are conditioned to it. And we’re doing this for a good reason."

An officer of more than 18 years, Senior Sergeant Shepherd said his wife and three children – aged 11, 14, and 15 – were well aware of the sacrifices they often had to make so he could serve and protect his community.

He said he was one of the lucky ones, able to spend important time back with his family but said he would happily consider returning for another stint if required.

A police checkpoint at Genoa on the Victorian border on Wednesday.Credit:Rachel Mounsey

"They know what I do for a job," he said.

The senior officer said the mood on the border had been mixed with most motorists pretty understanding of the rules. But a small number, he said, were still arriving without permits and needing to pull over and apply for one online before proceeding through about an hour later.

After an initial rush of traffic from NSW on Sunday and Monday ahead of the border closure, he said traffic had slowed.

The real highlight so far had been meeting other officers from right across the state and hearing about their work lives.

Victorian Police play a game of UNO after shift work on the borders.Credit:Rachel Mounsey

Despite stringent COVID-19 measures in place at the base camps, Senior Sergeant Shepherd said small groups of officers were able to mingle and socialise in their downtime, which was strengthening morale.

"We’ve got deployments from the city, from different departments and work units from country and metro areas. It’s great that we sometimes get this opportunity to intermingle," he said.

His advice to other officers set to head to the border in the coming days and weeks is to make sure they come armed with a willingness to have a go.

"Bring a little bit of extra bedding for yourself, your sense of humour, your patience and an open mind," Senior Sergeant Shepherd said.

"It’s different and it’s outside your comfort zone for a period of time but you will adjust and you will enjoy yourself."

Earlier this week it was revealed a significant number of the more than 700 officers who are being recalled from holidays or redeployed for the mammoth task will spend the festive season in "tent cities" with most of the accommodation near the border already booked up with holidaymakers unable to leave Victoria because of coronavirus restrictions.

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