Like most of us, I watched the unfolding events along the South Coast with disbelief, shock and many tears. The sheer magnitude of the horror unfolding was inconceivable, people trapped at the water’s edge watching fire ravage all they owned, those who lost their lives defending their homes, and among those firefighters who have won our hearts with their courage and seemingly endless commitment, death, injury and constant unprecedented danger.
Right throughout NSW there has been heartbreak on a scale rarely seen and most of us have carried a communal grief, a oneness with those who were suffering, and a feeling of helplessness to do anything to change the situation. I’ve found myself distracted by the ongoing horror and the seeming endlessness of it all. Common, everyday things seemed insignificant in the light of what has been happening. Tears are never far away as I watch graphic coverage of fellow Australians suffering so intensely.
And yet we've also developed a communal gratitude for the men and women who have dragged on their boots and helmets again and again and again to face the fury of the relentless war of flames. We call them heroes, a word they wouldn’t use themselves. We stand in awe of their dedication, their resilience and their sheer tenacity. Everyday men and women, who leave behind families, miss special events and work sometimes 12 and 14-hour shifts to keep us safe. Unpaid. Unsung. Unflinchingly dedicated.
Like the man at the helm, a motor mechanic who began working with the RFS at just 15 years of age. A man who knows what it is to face the fury of a fire and what it feels like to lose a father to the flames. A man who has worked through every rank of the service, studied management through TAFE NSW and at the Australian Institute of Police Management as the inaugural fellow of the Australasian Fire Authorities Council.
A family man. A man highly respected by his men and now loved and honoured by the people of NSW. We’ve seen his compassion and empathy; we’ve experienced his strength, dedication and clear communication which we all want so desperately in times of crisis. He carries the weight of responsibility with dignity and grace, answers tiresome questions with enormous patience and his calm demeanour somehow settles our anxious hearts.
Foundational for him is, “Making sure the strategies, equipment and operations that we deploy are done in a way that maximises fire fighter safety. Every family has the right to expect their loved ones to come home after a shift.”
Shane Fitzsimmons is a true leader. What makes him stand tall above the supposed leaders of our time? What makes a great leader?
In a word, I think its character, and as I look around the country, and indeed the world, I marvel at the dearth of great leaders. How scarce on the ground are men and women of integrity, humility and courage. Men and women with a commitment to the common good rather than self. Men and women who are strong but gentle, who listen and are open to the hearts and minds of others.
We are inundated with politicians more interested in selling themselves and their cause than the good of the nation and its people. We live in a society where greed and self-satisfaction is more important than compassion for others, and self-improvement is sought after in preference to developing character.
So many people are more interested in giving their children a good start in life, a good education so they can find a well paying job, the latest technology, the trendiest clothes, rather than being committed to building character in their offspring? Is instilling character our overriding desire as parents?
Maybe the demonstration of true character than has been modelled by our RFS members and their leader, is the thing we can take away from the horrific days we’ve just endured … commitment, perseverance, courage, compassion, kindness, love and living for the good of others.
If they are the attributes we strive for and grow in our children, then maybe we will see an emergence of great leaders in the next generation.
Perhaps when all this is over we should have a statewide Appreciation of RFS Day when as a community we let them know how highly they are valued and appreciated, and how grateful we are to them for fighting for us.