Ian finds a way to overcome cross-border restrictions

Science, Information & Technology Branch Field Officer Ian Schneider and his team monitor and maintain sites that help manage the state’s water supply. The only thing is that some of them are in Victoria and New South Wales.

Field Officer Ian Schneider

1. Describe your work from home set up?

My home is in the Riverland, and since the onset of COVID-19 I’ve been working from my home office approximately 50 per cent of the week. I am fortunate to have a home-office which is well equipped. I need to access technical software applications and I can do this either remotely using Citrix, or through locally installed applications on a laptop.

I work in a team of four local staff and we’re still doing field work and water monitoring activities. To reduce our interaction with staff at the office we relocated to our lab at the depot in Berri in early March. At the depot we set up a couple of hot desks which are sanitised after each use and we split our team into two, to mitigate the risk of any cross-infection.

2. How have you managed the transition from working in the office and out in the field to working at home and doing field work under cross border restrictions?

We have adapted to the challenges presented by COVID-19 pretty well and I feel the lessons we learned during the 2016 floods contributed to our response. Our team operates and maintains 100 surface water sites which have data published to the web in near real time and we are also responsible for monitoring more than 550 groundwater sites.

So, in early March we assessed all of our sites and worked through the logistics required to maintain and continue monitoring operations with increasing restrictions on movement and personal interactions. The need to maintain distance while performing our work had some complexities. These included travelling to a site, the need for two people to be present in a boat, the number of people available to operate a boat, availability of vehicles and boats and what timeframes might come into play, etc. From those considerations we ranked each site’s priority and planned accordingly.

Using this information the cross border and boat sites were ranked as the priority one sites for our team.

3. Has the way you work changed since the onset of COVID-19?

We operate quite a few water monitoring sites across the border in Victoria and New South Wales (NSW), including a site in the middle of Lake Victoria in south-western NSW near the South Australian border, which is a key storage for the water supply for our state. That water is released through Rufus River in NSW to the River Murray just below Lock 7, just over the SA border in Victoria.

Earlier on we were able to travel across the border quite easily because we had exemption permits in place. We worked with SAPOL to make sure we had the correct clearances to travel across the border for essential monitoring requirements and each field trip was assessed separately to ensure we reduced the risk of both contracting COVID-19 and quarantining.

Once the Victorian crisis emerged the new essential worker arrangements became quite fluid, and we had to try and work out how we were going to manage access to the border. We all received new exemptions, and even in that short time-frame we could see differences coming through in the application process as well as the personal requirements once you returned from across the border.

We also had to factor in the requirements in New South Wales and Victoria, as once you get across you need to meet their requirements in coming back. And working in a cross-border community, it was concerning because there’s a reasonable risk of COVID-19 creeping in along the border zone.

So, to reduce the need for us to cross the border on a regular basis we’re now working in partnership with SA Water staff in Victoria and NSW to ensure ongoing monitoring requirements for those sites are met. For specialised jobs we’ll still head across but for short-term routine monitoring it’s serving us well.

4. What have you missed about working in the office?

The main thing is catch-ups in corridors with colleagues and project staff because that’s when you’ll often hear valuable or interesting information. When you have a chat in the corridor or kitchen with project staff often the chat leads to discussing ways that our unit can add value to a project.

5. What have been the upsides of working flexibly and working from home?

I’ve found that using Teams technology has been a real leveler for meetings with city-based staff. I have enjoyed applying different background photos in Teams meetings, which can actually be used as a bit of fun but also as a tool to provide meeting attendees with some insight into our region and what we do. The ability to share an image of the piece of equipment we’re discussing can make a big difference.

6. What will you take away from this whole experience – professionally and personally?

The main take away for me is the importance of being pre-emptive, considering possible scenarios and taking practical measures to prepare for eventualities. By being prepared you take out the peaks and troughs of a situation, and it puts you in a better position.

My immediate water monitoring team is based in Berri but WRMU staff are spread far and wide, with a main office at Regency Park, an office in Naracoorte and staff in Mount Gambier and Port Lincoln. I think everyone in the unit has adapted really well but I’m particularly proud of the responsiveness of our small Riverland team who responded so quickly to adapt and manage both the social distancing requirements and the cross-border situations. We developed a strategy well before we were officially required to which meant we got a lot of our priority work completed before COVID-19 restrictions came into place.