By Amy Cheng, Image supplied by Salty Dingo.
Resilience is the key to coping in difficult and uncertain times, according to former NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner.
Shane Fitzsimmons is the NSW Australian of the Year 2021 and one of the nominee’s for the 2021 Australian of the Year award.
In his Australia Day Address this month, he said that resilience is at the heart of the Australian spirit.
“You get knocked down, you get back up again. You get bucked off the horse, you dust yourself, you sit right back in the saddle and continue on,” he said in his address.
“If resilience is at the heart of the Australian spirit, then what’s at the heart of resilience is community, and what’s at the heart of community is volunteers and volunteerism.” – Shane Fitzsimmons
Mr Fitzsimmons believes that resilience is about the individual and shared experiences.
“If resilience is at the heart of the Australian spirit, then what’s at the heart of resilience is community, and what’s at the heart of community is volunteers and volunteerism.”
“Resilience is built on life experience, things that happen to us, things that trouble us, things that disrupt our day-to-day living.”
It is about learning from past experiences to ready and prepare ourselves, but this often comes at a cost, he said.
“Living experience and dealing with traumatic and difficult disruptive events often come, or more often than not comes, with a profound emotional toll. The emotional distress and the anxiety, the trauma, really affects us all,” Mr Fitzsimmons said.
Talking about our experiences is also important, he said, but many people struggle with this. Men, in particular, often confuse resilience with being tough and not being impacted or affected by suffering or emotional distress.
Men, in particular, often confuse resilience with being tough and not being impacted or affected by suffering or emotional distress.
“My message is, as men particularly, we need to give ourselves and we need to give each other permission that it’s actually OK to talk about things, to have feelings, to have thoughts, to share those feelings and thoughts, and work through them together, and make sure we access and utilise any support services available,” he said.
Mr Fitzsimmons showed exemplary leadership during the 2019-20 bushfire season, which was one of Australia’s worst bushfire seasons.
He began his career with Rural Fire Service (RFS) as a teenage volunteer in 1985, following in the footsteps of his father George, a fulltime firefighter who was killed on duty in 2000.
In 1994, Mr Fitzsimmons joined the RFS full-time and worked in several leadership positions before being appointed commissioner in 2007. He held this role for 12 years.
Last year, he finished up in his role as commissioner to head up the new NSW Resilience disaster recovery agency.
He was named NSW Australian of the Year 2021 in November. He is “enormously humbled” and proud, but said this recognition is also bittersweet.
”Whilst I absolutely am humbled and proud, I’m also very mindful that it’s on the backdrop of the worst bushfire season we’ve ever had, and people are still working through their recovery, they’re rebuilding… and importantly they’re healing,” he said.
Ordinary Australians doing extraordinary things
Mr Fitzsimmons has been reading up about the nominees from other states and recently had the opportunity to meet with them in person.
“When you get to see them personally, they’re even more impressive when you see how humble they are, how ordinary they are, like you and I, I think that’s pretty special,” he said.
“Whatever the result is immaterial to me. To even be recognised by your colleagues in your host state, for me in NSW, to be identified and recognised is something very special, it’s something very significant.
“To be a finalist in the national category is just a whole new ballgame again, so whoever is the recipient on the evening of the 25th we should all combine together and congratulate them and just remind ourselves how lucky we are as a nation to have so many wonderful people, ordinary Australians doing extraordinary things.”
“The reality is if we didn’t have men and women that serve so selflessly, our communities would be very much the poorer without their service and support.” – Shane Fitzsimmons
However, the impact of bushfires and drought on the community has changed him forever.
“It’s certainly changed me forever, and right at the forefront of that are the families and the lives of those that lost loved ones this season, including our firefighters and our volunteers,” he said.
During that difficult bushfire season, Mr Fitzsimmons worked long hours and held daily press conferences to keep the public informed. Many Australians looked to him for leadership and guidance.
“Yes, there were difficult days, there were awful days, but every day my ability to do my job was underpinned by the fact that I was inspired every day by the men and women that were turning up, day after day, week after week, month after month in the most awful of conditions and circumstances, doing their part to make a difference in their community,” he said.
In particular, Mr Fitzsimmons would like to recognise the amazing work of the volunteers, who he calls the “heartbeat of the community”.
“The reality is if we didn’t have men and women that serve so selflessly, our communities would be very much the poorer without their service and support, and we will owe them a debt of gratitude forever, and particularly those that paid the ultimate price,” he said.
“We owe it to all of them to make sure that [their children] know growing up that their dads are not here simply because they were heroes and they paid the ultimate price in service and protection to their community, which is a an ultimate sacrifice.”
Mr Fitzsimmons recognised that Australia Day will be very different this year but believes there is still much to celebrate.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that the single biggest change to Australia Day this year is the COVID restrictions that come with it,” he said.
“We’re not going to be able to gather in the numbers that we normally want on any given Australia Day, but the fundamentals are still there, we do still need to celebrate the Australian spirit that when we get knocked down we get up again, when things go tough we pull together.”
The Australian of the Year Awards will take place at 7.30pm, Monday 25 January 2021, on ABC TV and iview.