Shane Fitzsimmons, Firefighter Turned Commissioner of Resilience

Shane Fitzsimmons

The calm face of the Black Summer bushfires is a Macquarie Business School graduate who lives by the creed that authenticity trumps everything.

Learn through lived experiences


Commissioner, Resilience NSW

“When all the response agencies leave the scene, there’s an emotional roller-coaster that comes with people comprehending and processing the damage and destruction, the loss and tragedy. The generic definition of resilience you’ll find in dictionaries is words to the effect of ‘the ability to bounce back to normal after big disruption or disaster or circumstances.’ I call BS on that because in this modern era, what is normal for anyone anyway? And why would you want to go back to that ‘normal’ state and be just as vulnerable or susceptible to disruption and displacement again? I really believe that resilience is about learning through lived experiences – both personally and those of others – then building on that knowledge and coming out the other side wiser, stronger and able to focus on how we adapt, rebuild and heal so that we’re better able to understand and anticipate the next event. We also have to appreciate that there’s a significant emotional toll. We can’t experience these traumatic events and think that we’re not emotionally affected. I’ve learnt that we must open up and talk to each other. We all have to do our bit to normalise and destigmatise mental health issues.”

Good leaders truly care


Commissioner, NSW Rural Fire Service

“In a simplistic way, leadership is all about building trust and confidence in your team. And authenticity trumps everything. If you don’t know and things are awful, you have to let people know that – but this is what we’re going to do about it. You have to be the real you; don’t pretend and don’t pose because no-one likes a tosser or a pretender. They just want to know and understand that you’ve got their back. Humility and empathy is fundamental. Leaders need to remember it’s not about them – don’t take yourself too seriously but crikey, take your job very seriously. I was emotionally broken a number of times during that fire season [the Black Summer of 2019-2020] and unashamedly so because it hurt; it really hurt. When you genuinely care, you can’t help but be impacted and affected.”

Tailor your approach


Assistant commissioner, NSW Rural Fire Service

“I remember going to a meeting in one of my first weeks. I had the brief, I had the projects and I just did the normal thing of going, ‘Okay, we’re up to here, I see here we’re doing this. Is everyone comfortable with that?’ I thought the meeting was really productive but people felt intimidated. They felt that it was bang, bang, bang and they didn’t feel they could contribute. It was a profound lesson for me. Growing up in the operational side of the business, I was used to very extroverted, highly opinionated, get-in-your-face people. I learnt if you want to make sure you’re making the best decisions and keeping on top of things as much as you can, you must make sure you hear from your team. And sometimes that requires a deliberate invitation for someone to contribute.”

It’s not one size fits all


Regional planning officer for the Central East Region and state operations officer, NSW Rural Fire Service

“I’d been an extremely active volunteer in my district and we had our own way of doing things. In this role, I was exposed to the state picture. There were cultures in cultures in big organisations, with different needs and requirements. You can’t give cookie-cutter solutions to a big mix of people. It was a real eye-opener and reinforced that leadership and management are easy – they’re only a challenge when we add in people because we’re all a bit weird and we all do things a bit differently. We also inherently fear change and this was a big change environment. I had to really broaden those skills of interaction, communication, prosecuting arguments, negotiating different things and listening to what people were saying because head offices don’t always get it right. Policy is of no value if it can’t be applied locally.”

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Think a few steps ahead


Captain, Duffy’s Forest Rural Fire Brigade

“I was 19 years old and I was the youngest elected captain in a volunteer brigade in our district and, as I understand it, in New South Wales at the time. It was challenging when I went to my first captains meeting. Most of them were much older and I had to learn how to engage and suggest ideas. Sometimes I was told to calm down with my ideas and my enthusiasm. The older members of the brigade would always say, ‘You’ve got great ideas but what you don’t have yet is the benefit of wisdom.’ I needed time to understand the bigger picture and to experiment with different things and see how they played out. An idea is one thing but an idea in place, with all its flow-on effects, is another. I was mentored by a lot of the older males that were in the group and their advice and guidance helped me enormously.”

Understand the customer’s needs


Motor mechanic, Sundell Holden

“My family was very big on the need to have a trade. I wasn’t really the best mechanic – don’t get me wrong, I passed everything and could work on cars – but my managers saw something in me and asked me to help with the training and development of new apprentices. And then they gave me a job on the front counter, interacting with customers. That customer service training gave me a significant insight into the value and the responsibility you have. In a motor dealership, what you’re repairing or maintaining can be the most valuable asset someone holds. That vehicle is critical in terms of how they function. I also learnt that addressing people correctly and using meaningful, respectful language helps enormously in the customer service space.”

Argue and debate... respectfully


Volunteer, Duffys Forest Rural Fire Brigade

“I came from a broken home and was quite wayward as a teenager. But my dad was a volunteer with the local bushfire brigade and when I was old enough, I joined up. I think some of the most foundational life-learning skills for me were formed in my volunteer time in the brigade around things like the criticality of teamwork, which is a manifestation of mutual respect, value and appreciation, as well as the ability to have debate and to reach compromise. If volunteers don’t feel valued, respected or appreciated then they don’t feel they can contribute and be part of something that matters to them. They also have this wonderful ability to tell you to get stuffed and go somewhere else where they think they can find those elements, that sense of belonging and that sense of purpose.”

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