Resilience Lessons from Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons

IMAGE: Shane Fitzsimmons. Photo credit: Australianoftheyear.com.au
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On Tuesday 2nd May 2022, Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons AO AFSM gave a welcome address at the CWA of NSW Annual General Meeting and Conference in Randwick, Sydney.

Commissioner Fitzsimmons is the Head of Resilience NSW and was the former Commissioner of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service between September 2007 and April 2020.

Commissioner Fitzsimmons began his address by listing the unprecedented disasters that have beset NSW over the last few years and spoke in detail about the 2019-20 bushfires, which saw the loss of 26 people, including seven firefighters and four volunteers and 2,500 homes. Turning to the recent floods, the Commissioner stated that 12,000 homes have been lost, and the clean-up effort has resulted in 20,000 truckloads of debris and waste. In NSW, 49 recovery sites across affected areas have been established to provide face-to-face support to NSW residents, and thus far, 93,000 calls have been received by the Care Line.

Commissioner Fitzsimmons then turned his attention to recovery and resilience. “Recovery is generally thought of as replacement of things, for example, homes, schools, businesses, etc. But what we need to focus on is psychological healing and repair,” he said.

“I don’t support the common definition of resilience, of pushing through no matter what comes your way. Rather, I think it’s about learning through experience so that you become stronger, become better informed and able to do things differently in the future. We need to learn the lessons of the past so that we come out better and stronger.

“The idea is “betterment”. When we rebuild, we don’t want to rebuild what we had. We want to take the lessons from our recent experience and make our communities and infrastructure stronger and more resilient than before”, he said.

The Commissioner then turned his attention to a great example of community resilience – Cobargo School. When he visited the school in 2020, he was impressed by a book that the teachers had put together along with the children. The book contained the children’s thoughts and feelings about the bushfire, and even contained charred ear tags from stock that had been lost. The book was well used by the children and teachers and helped them realise that by talking about their experiences they were not alone.

A member of the audience asked Commissioner Fitzsimmons how he copes with his demanding job. The Commissioner responded that he has good days and bad days.

“I was broken during the fire season when we lost people. It was very challenging on some days: hoping for moisture, but all we got was lightning and more fires. But I was inspired by the tenacity of all the fire workers, by the tenacity of communities, by the outpouring of love and kindness of people in communities.

“My way of coping is talking openly to others about how I’m feeling,” he concluded.

The Commissioner was thanked for sharing his experience and thoughts with delegates and received a standing ovation for his commendable service to NSW.

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