OPEN AND DIRECT: Firies earned respect from the top down
ON FRIDAY, May 8, 2020 The Daily Examiner marks six months since the Clarence Valley’s darkest hour of the 2019-20 bushfire season with a SPECIAL EDITION looking back at the devastating Nymboida firestorm, its aftermath and recovery.
A SUCCESSFUL response to any unforeseen event – from unprecented bushfires to COVID-19 pandemics – requires strong leadership and a clear direction from the top all the way down to those fighting on the frontline.
In the past two months Australian governments have demonstrated that providing clear, concise, accurate and reliable information achieves cooperation from society, built on increased knowledge, understanding and trust.
The precursor to such leadership – from which Scott Morrison no doubt learned and Gladys Berejiklian had the benefit of witnessing first hand – was how NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons handled the 2019-20 bushfire disasters.
His leadership alone no doubt contributed to saving many, many lives. The RFS was blessed to have such a leader who conveyed the right messages at the right time, which prevented unwanted noise and distraction, and allowed maximum cooperation from the community to combat the fires in the best way possible. The respect he earned echoed right through the corridors of middle management down to the humble volunteer giving up his or her day job to be on the frontline.
In December the Clarence Valley RFS was recognised for its efforts and rapport within the community when it was selected as number one in The Daily Examiner’s Power 30 of the Most Influential People in the Clarence Valley in 2019.
At the helm of that organisation is Superintendent Stuart Watts. This week he took his hat off to Mr Fitzsimmons, who has now taken on the newly created role of NSW Commissioner of Resilience to drive disaster preparedness and recovery approach, and been replaced by his long-term former deputy Rob Rogers.
“Shane and his Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers have been quite innovative in their approach to fires in the last 10 years,” Supt Watts said.
“We can access heavy plant a lot easier, bringing in the large air tankers, those things would’ve saved a lot of properties.”
Asked how we would describe the influence Commissioner Fitzsimmons had on the NSW RFS during the 2019/20 bushfire season, Supt Watts said “he stood up”.
“I’ve come in contact with a lot of people the last six months or so and all you hear is the respect that he has earnt,” he said.
“Shane also wore the emotional side of it harder than anyone else in the organisation. He was very admirable.
“He loves his volunteers and he was quite mobile as the commissioner. His leadership style will be missed. I wish him well in his new role.
“New boss, new times, new challenges, new direction, but he is definitely going to leave a great legacy, and we can only build on that again, and I’m pretty certain a lot of people will come across Commissioner Fitzsimmons again somewhere along the line.”
“I’m sorry to see him go but he’s moving on to a very important area where I believe he will do well.”
The Clarence Valley’s darkest hour struck long before the season hit its peak, when a firestorm swept through Nymboida on the night of November 9. It’s a day Supt Watts will never forget.
“In my 40 years of voluntary and paid employment with the RFS it was by far the worst season I have ever seen,” he said. “Not only in the Clarence Valley, but all across the east coast of the state.
“The devastation was heartbreaking, particularly the loss of life that was recorded.”
At the epicentre of the November 9 disaster was Nymboida RFS Captain Paul Johnstone.
“I believe he had a tremendously positive influence (on the organisation),” Mr Johnstone said.
“He led firmly and strongly during a time of crisis.”
While Mr Fitzsimmons never visited this particular fireground in the wake of the bushfires, Mr Johnstone was still full of praise for his former commissioner.
“Although he wasn’t able to visit us, he visited a lot of affected areas,” he said.
“Unfortunately when we had our darkest hour, the rest of the state followed suit very quickly and we do understand he was very busy.
“I’m sorry to see him go but he’s moving on to a very important area where I believe he will do well.
“He did a terrific job when you consider it wasn’t just the RFS relying on him, he was going out there and speaking to the people every day, he didn’t shirking away from it, and was accountable for himself, which is the mark of a very good leader.”