As NSW Rural Fire Service commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons became a nationally recognised figure during the devastating 2019-20 bushfire season. Now, as the inaugural head of Resilience NSW, he is tasked with preparing Australia’s most populous state for an uncertain future. Shane sat down with IPWEA to discuss the challenges local governments are facing and to reflect on his career.
Q: You handled the bushfires incredibly well and became a national hero in the process. Why leave the RFS?
A: I’ve always been wary of outliving my relevance or my welcome in any role. And I had been the commissioner of the RFS for over a decade. I knew in my mind that, for organisational renewal and for personal renewal, it was time to leave.
Q: And you reached that conclusion in 2019, didn’t you?
A: Yes, and a lot of people don’t realise that. Prior to the fire season of 2019-20, I’d reached an agreement that I would stand down as commissioner. But something just didn’t feel right in the lead-up to that summer. We were averaging over 1,000 fires a month. I decided I should stay for one more season.
Q: How did you first become involved in firefighting?
A: My dad was a volunteer and some of my earliest memories are of him coming home in his firefighting overalls. I joined my local volunteer Bushfire Brigade, as it was then called, when I was 15. I just found a real sense of belonging there – a real sense of camaraderie and teamwork and purpose. That got me focused on community service and making a difference in the local community.
Q: When did you decide to make a career of it?
A: While I was in that volunteer structure, I was elected into senior roles. And I started to think: ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could convert this volunteer work into a career in the emergency space?’ I didn’t want to be a full-time firefighter – I wanted to be in the emergency management area. And fortunately, in the mid ’90s, I was able to secure a job with the State Department of Bushfire Services. I applied for the role of commissioner in 2007 and held that role until last year.
Q: As the frequency and severity of natural emergencies increase, can the RFS afford to rely so heavily on volunteer firefighters?
A: Well, in the last decade or so, we averaged about 4,000 new members per year. But last year, after the awful fire season, something like 8,500 new members joined. As the need grows, so does the willingness of the community to step up.
Q: So, the volunteer model is sustainable?
A: I believe so, providing we empower them and trust them and value them and prioritise them. Also, you do need to get the mix right and make sure you’ve got them backed up with resources, with salaried people and with the latest state-of-the-art equipment.
Q: Now you’re at Resilience NSW, what’s the first step towards building a more resilient Australia?
A: We’ve got to be able to assess communities using consistent methodology to understand what each one is vulnerable or susceptible to. Once we start understanding their vulnerabilities – whether it’s natural hazards, socioeconomic issues, or a growing need for critical infrastructure – we then have the ability to prioritise our investments.
Q: What else is important?
A: When we make these assessments, we’ve got to do so using not only our current understanding of what communities might be vulnerable or susceptible to, but also by asking: ‘What does that look like as we look ahead? What do the forecasts and the indications signal?’ That means building differently on bushfire-prone land. Not building in floodplains – or if we are going to utilise floodplains, what’s the appropriate use of them?
Q: You’re saying resilience is about anticipating future threats?
A: Precisely. Most of the time, you’ll find resilience described as bouncing back to normal after disruption or disaster. Well, I just don’t cop it. I call BS on that definition, particularly when it comes to disaster. Why would anyone want to bounce back to the same place after being impacted so badly by a disaster? Don’t just build the same thing back again. Have a good look at it and ask: ‘Is this the opportunity to build back better?’
Q: Do you think we’re collectively up to the challenge?
A: I think so. But we need to be humble. I think it was Darwin who said: ‘It’s not the biggest or the strongest or the loudest of the species that survives. It’s the one that’s most able to adapt to its changing environment.’ And then I think Einstein’s definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
Q: Do professional organisations such as IPWEA have a role to play?
A: Absolutely, by enabling communication. When it comes to disaster planning, management response and recovery, collaboration is fundamental. The more we can collaborate and share learnings between one another, leverage ideas from one another, the better our various organisations can become.
Q: You’ve had a busy few years. What have you learned about being a leader?
A: Authenticity trumps everything. Also, as leaders, we’ve got to remember that we’re leaders amongst equals. We’re no better than anybody else. It’s vital to be real with ourselves: to understand our limitations and weaknesses, and to accept them.
Shane Fitzsimmons will be a keynote speaker at the IPWEA International Public Works Conference in May 2022. Find out more about the conference at www.ipwc.com.au.