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After leading the NSW Rural Fire Service through the summer’s bushfire crisis, Shane Fitzsimmons has now taken up a new challenge – how the state will recover from Covid-19. By Sarah Price.

Resilience NSW commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons

The last time we spoke, Shane Fitzsimmons said the thing keeping him awake at night was the dread that a Rural Fire Service (RFS) member would get seriously injured, or lose their life, on firegrounds. He feared he would lose one of his people.

That was nearly six months ago, about the end of October, when the bushfires had just begun their domino descent from northern New South Wales to the Victorian border.

The fire season had arrived early in NSW. Before it had even officially begun, the state averaged 1000 fires a month in June, July and August. That tally grew to nearly 12,000 blazes by season’s end.

These fires consumed some 5.5 million hectares and claimed 25 lives, including those of three aviators from the United States who died when the water bomber they were flying in crashed near Cooma. Three members of the NSW RFS also perished fighting fires: Geoff Keaton and Andrew O’Dwyer were killed when a large tree fell on their truck, and Samuel McPaul died near Albury when the truck he was working on flipped during a fire-generated thunderstorm, crushing him.

Fitzsimmons was everywhere during these devastating months. On television, he appeared calm and steadfast, frustrated on only one occasion, and a few times teary. Blazes continued to burn until the end of February, when the dry weather pattern was at last disrupted by meaningful rainfall and the worst of the fires was extinguished.

Then, without a breath, came the Covid-19 pandemic.

The RFS headquarters at Homebush was repurposed into a new control centre, bringing together key agencies to map the risk and spread of the virus – and Fitzsimmons found himself at the centre of another crisis.

But then, in early April, he resigned as fire commissioner of NSW and it was announced he would become commissioner of the new government agency Resilience NSW, as well as the state’s deputy secretary for emergency management.

It was a deeply personal decision to leave the RFS, says Fitzsimmons.

“To leave an organisation that I have been attached to for so long, especially after last season, was extremely hard,” he says. “The reality is though that doing what is right – making the correct decision – is often the most difficult.”

As commissioner of Resilience NSW, he says his priority now is “recovery, recovery, recovery”.

“We know the best recovery is localised, community led, and endorsed and supported by the state. There is a massive amount to do,” he says. “But it is not just about the bushfires – overlaying that is a statewide recovery of the Covid-19 virus.”

He says this effort – with competing demands and resources, and different strategies and approaches – is, in a way, like trying to deal with widespread bushfire events. It is not just about the disease, it’s about everything else, too: jobs, business, productivity, expenditure and consumption.

“For the last few years we’ve had people absolutely on their knees with drought, then we had bushfires on top of that … in some areas they also got floods and storms, and now, completely indiscriminate – getting absolutely everybody – is the Covid disease. So, you’ve got a compounding effect of disaster and emergency, which takes not only an enormous physical toll with infrastructure and fatigue, but you’ve got the emotional and psychological toll – the welfare of everybody.

“I don’t underestimate the challenge and responsibility that I am taking on.”

It’s a challenge that comes in the wake of six gruelling months. Throughout the summer’s bushfire crisis, Fitzsimmons was rarely home during waking hours, leaving before his family were up and arriving home after they were already in bed.

His wife, Lisa, an experienced nurse, was his greatest support; Fitzsimmons describes her as “remarkable”. “She is such an important part of what I do and how I operate,” he says. “I made phone calls to her and released a lot of emotion – rather than doing it in front of a whole group of people when we were trying to keep united, to keep focused on a very demanding, emotional and ongoing operation. Lisa worried about the hours, the load, the stress … She was particularly worried about how I would take personally the loss of firefighters on firegrounds, and the loss of people in the path of fires. That burden of command – when you are in charge, and it is your watch when things go wrong – I take that personally.”

It was about midnight on December 20 last year when the call came that a fire truck had been involved in an accident south-west of Sydney. Fitzsimmons got dressed, left home and, in the early hours of the morning, met with the family of Geoff Keaton: his partner, Jess, and the couple’s toddler, Harvey. After that, he went on to meet with Andrew O’Dwyer’s wife, Melissa, and their young daughter, Charlotte. Both men had been volunteers with the Horsley Park rural fire brigade.

Less than two weeks later, when Samuel McPaul was killed, the fire chief arrived in Albury just before midnight. He visited the accident scene, met with the crew and spent time with McPaul’s mother as well as his pregnant wife, Megan. “That was extremely difficult … it was also very special,” he says. “There is something sacred about spending time with people in their darkest hours, people who are grieving the awful loss of their most precious in life.

“I will be forever grateful to those wonderful young women for letting us in, talking with us and allowing us to be part of their grieving process, because while they lost their dearest, the RFS lost members of their extended family.”

He says the public’s response to the crisis – through social media, cafes providing free food and coffee for firefighters, letters of support arriving from all around the world – constantly buoyed him and other members of the RFS. “The very worst in Mother Nature brought out the very best in human and community spirit. It didn’t matter where you went, there was an extraordinary outpouring of love and care. It kept everyone going, including myself,” he says.

To get through the summer, Fitzsimmons found he needed to focus on the task before him. “You’ve got to be humble, particularly during a crisis, remembering whatever role you’ve got, it isn’t about you,” he says. “In my view, egos are counterproductive to leadership at any time but even more so when it comes to crisis leadership and leadership under tragic circumstances. Whatever happened during the season, I had to make decisions and take action, often with limited time, limited information and limited opportunity to execute those decisions.”

In his new role, the former fire chief will be asked to take a longer view, looking to the hard questions that will emerge when the lockdown we’re all under begins to lift.

“Once we’ve ratcheted down restrictions and flattened the curve, how is it that we then start releasing some of those controls?” he asks. “Are there tweaks we can make to start re-energising people and start re-energising the economy? We need to get jobs and business and social cohesion going without a rapid growth in the spread of the contagion. That is a huge undertaking. And, at the same time, we are still trying to deal with people who have been affected by bushfires and by the drought.”

These people are never far from his mind, especially the considerable numbers still living in emergency accommodation after losing their homes to the summer’s fires. At the same time, though, he has one eye on the next fire season, knowing the threat hasn’t passed.

The summer’s devastating fire event, Fitzsimmons says, is not the “new normal”; rather, it set a benchmark for what we can expect as the new extreme. “I think it validates our forecasting and modelling around climate change, and it has called into question what is the new extreme,” he says. “We’ve got some of the best scientists and fire modelling behaviour specialists in the world. Throughout the last decade they have been predicting fire behaviour and fire spread. Historically all the modelling and predictions show that we usually land in the middle – but what we had this season was a number of fires exceeding the worst-case scenario.”

He continues: “There is no doubt, after this last season – prior to Covid-19 – there was a need to review and rethink all the existing planning instruments for a fire scenario, which will have flow-on effects to broader arrangements and other emergencies,” he says. “When you add on the pandemic, there are so many things to think about … We will be doing it for years. Everything from preparedness, inventory levels and reliance on global supply chains. There will be all manner of lessons that come out of this season, including anything to do with climate projections, and of course the lessons and experience of the last six to 12 months. You’ve got to be reflective and retrospective in terms of learning as much as you can from the past … There are so many variables that come into projections, and scenario planning.”

His idea of a resilient state or society, Fitzsimmons says, is one that functions as a community, including people, governments, business and industry – everyone together. How do we work as a community? What can we do to plan for, or militate against, disasters and emergencies? How do we ensure critical services and infrastructure, telecommunications, transport and utilities?

“Most importantly though, how can we rebound and recover post the disruption?” he says. “It is about how well prepared we are, so we can bounce back from disruption and dislocation as a result of disasters and emergencies, no matter what they are: bushfires, storms and floods, droughts – and, dare I say it, pandemics. That is the focus.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 18, 2020 as "Resilience is golden".

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Sarah Price is a Sydney-based writer.