Shane Fitzsimmons on his own heartbreak amid the flames

Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons shares his own heartbreak

National News
DEDICATED: Duffys Forest Rural Fire Brigade member and former NSW RFS Commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons, was named as the NSW 2021 Australian of the Year. Picture: Salty Dingo

DEDICATED: Duffys Forest Rural Fire Brigade member and former NSW RFS Commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons, was named as the NSW 2021 Australian of the Year. Picture: Salty Dingo

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How a family tragedy changed the former RFS commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.

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Former RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons is well known to many as the face of the 2019-20 horror bushfire season, but this former NSW northern beaches local has also suffered his own heartbreak amid the flames. Journalist Nadine Morton sat down with him to find out more.

"Being given the award, I was quite emotional, it was very humbling and it was in some ways overwhelming.

So much of it settles around the unprecedented fire season that we had last year, in so many ways it's truly bittersweet. If we could turn back time and not have the enormity of the scale and the longevity of the fire season and the damage and the destruction and the loss and the tragedy; then I would give it all back in a heartbeat.

When I started in the Warringah Shire on the NSW northern beaches we used to buy our own overalls, we used to go down to the army disposal store at Dee Why and get second hand army boots. And [we'd get] old helmets if we knew someone in the fire brigade. We used to spend the weekends at Duffys Forest brigade repairing and rebuilding the trucks.

I was a mechanic by trade when I first left school and we used to try and repair the vehicles to try and keep them driveable. To see in a fairly short period of time, in only a few decades, that governments of different persuasions have invested in improving and professionalising the equipment and infrastructure to enable volunteers to deliver second-to-none services, I'm really proud to be part of that journey.

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Like everyone, your life experiences and your life journey positions you for whatever ends up coming your way. On June 8, 2000 when Dad and his fellow crew were doing what was otherwise a routine hazard reduction burn up at Mount Ku-ring-gai, things went horribly wrong.

The crew were overrun by fire and three people died on the mountain that afternoon, including Dad [George Fitzsimmons, then aged 52]. Another fellow died a month later from his horrific injuries and three others survived with extraordinary medical treatment.

The crew were overrun by fire and three people died on the mountain that afternoon, including Dad.

Absolutely I questioned why I was in that business if something like that could happen to my Dad, then what chance is there for me and others? It really strengthened my resolve to do whatever we could in what is an inherently very risky operating environment, whether it's prescribed burning or fighting bushfires in the most awful of conditions, like we saw in the last fire season.

We've got to make sure we're investing in and preparing our people to provide the safest operating environment. Volunteers and others who go out in the field to do their shift deserve the right to come home.

Last bushfire season, I was part of an amazing team. We were all doing our part and every day I was just inspired by thousands and thousands and thousands of men and women, the vast majority of whom are volunteers in the Rural Fire Service.

There was also their sister volunteer organisations and their community groups working shoulder-to-shoulder with Fire and Rescue, National Parks, Forestry and all the police and emergency management. Every state and territory in Australia came to our aid, colleagues from New Zealand, United States and Canada; the Commonwealth Government and the ADF.

I questioned why I was in that business if something like that could happen to my Dad. - Former NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons

We had 6500 people from outside NSW that came to direct assistance and stood up every day, week after week, month after month, to simply try and save and protect others. To be part of a team like that is very special.

We also had those tragic losses, 26 lives lost, including seven firefighters. It was without a doubt some of the most difficult, emotionally challenging things I've ever done in my life.

I'll be forever grateful. There's something very sacred and very special about having families let you in their door at all manner of hours to reflect on the fact that their loved one, that most precious person in their life, is not coming home. I'll be forever grateful and changed forever as a result of what we endured that season.

The decision to leave the organisation was absolutely the most difficult career decision in my life, there is no doubt about it.

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I think as leaders the right decisions are often the most difficult and the right decisions that affect you personally are the most difficult decisions.

I always wanted to make sure I never outstayed my welcome, that I never outstayed my relevance in an organisation. And after 12 years as the commissioner, I thought it was advantageous for the organisation and myself to look at doing something different.

Duffys Forest brigade is the only volunteer brigade that I've been a member of, I wasn't the most studious of students at school and I found a real sense of belonging and purpose. Some of my very best friends who I still connect with today are some of those foundation members at the brigade, we all started up there as young teenagers.

That's where I met Lisa, who was the daughter of the fire control officer. Later we started dating and - as they say the rest is history - and we've been married 27 years. We've got two daughters."

The story Shane Fitzsimmons on his own heartbreak amid the flames first appeared on Northern Beaches Review.

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