As harrowing bushfires tore through NSW for months, the state’s 2021 Australian of the Year Shane Fitzsimmons approached the crisis with one key attribute.
The former Rural Fire Service chief delivered his Australia Day address on Monday ahead of the January 26 public holiday, speaking personally about last season’s unprecedented blazes.
Emergency declarations were issued on more than 200 days of the 2019-20 bushfire season as exhausted firefighters battled up and down drought-stricken NSW against multiple infernos.
Some 5.5 million hectares were razed and 26 people killed.
Mr Fitzsimmons said resilience was key to fighting through such grim times and sat 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 off and you sit right back in the saddle and continue on,” he said.
After joining Duffys Forest bushfire brigade in Sydney’s north as a 15-year-old, Mr Fitzsimmons spent 35 years with the RFS.
Nicknamed the “Nation’s Father” during Black Summer, he was appointed inaugural Resilience NSW commissioner in May 2020.
Mr Fitzsimmons said his new role in disaster management and recovery was well supported by his first-hand experience of watching destroyed communities rebuild their lives and homes.
He recounted “one of the most challenging conversations” he had in the lead-up to Christmas 2020 with a work colleague who sought guidance and emotional support.
Despite the call’s helpfulness, the man – afraid of being judged for not coping with his trauma – implored Mr Fitzsimmons to keep the conversation private.
“It was one of the most disturbing phone calls I’ve had and I can tell you I’ve had a lot in the last 12 months or so,” he said.
“We need to break the stigma and the onus is on us men.
“There is no shame in having emotions, in being concerned and having anxiety and being affected by the sorts of extraordinary disruptions, despair and tragedy we have experienced.”
Mr Fitzsimmons said despite the need for physical distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic, social connection was more important than ever and isolation should be avoided.
Technological tools facilitating virtual connection had brought other people closer, including chief executives and their workers.
Citing COVID-10 disruptions, he said Australia Day 2021 would be unlike any other and pointed to the recent change in Australia’s national anthem as “powerful and important”.
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it were possible to have a nationally-agreed Indigenous version that we could all learn and unite in voice and sing together as one,” he said.