15 May 2020

Firefighting collaboration worthy of commendation

| Edwina Mason
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From left: Phillip Baer, Andrew Dillon, Peter Holding, Steph Cooke, standing next to sign outside Rural Fire Service building.

From left: NSW Rural Fire Service group captain Phillip Baer; Superintendent Andrew Dillon; group captain Peter Holding; and NSW Member for Cootamundra Steph Cooke. Photo: Supplied.

The collaborative efforts of a South West Slopes firefighting team has garnered the attention of NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Rob Rogers. Last week, the NSW Rural Fire Service’s South West Slopes management team, with headquarters in Harden-Murrumburrah, were announced as recipients of a Commissioner’s Certificate of Commendation (Unit).

The management team oversee 50 volunteer rural fire brigades in the local government areas of Cootamundra, Harden, Young and Boorowa.

It was their demonstration of leadership and decision-making – as proponents for their team of volunteers – in the development of a unique multifaceted charter that seeks input from all members, that has been the secret to their success.

Essentially the charter is aligned to four workgroups – Business Management, Operations, Community Risk Management and Membership.

Working with standing agendas, the workgroups – comprising a management team, salaried and senior volunteer members – are able to examine opportunities for improvement, understand financial positions, allocate resources and explore new approaches.

According to the NSW Rural Fire Service, this approach allows members greater opportunity to engage with brigade field officers on a range of topics, and allows staff and senior volunteers to work together on specific projects to benefit all members in the South West Slopes Zone.

“This has provided a greater understanding, among brigades, of the direction of the NSW Rural Fire Service, including capital improvement priorities and advances in operational procedure,” the RFS explained. “The team have shown commitment and achievement beyond what is normally expected.”

Longtime volunteer and Boorowa group captain Phillip Baer said it was good to see this model of consensual decision-making recognised.

“It also reflects extremely well on the area manager who had the courage to surrender some of his authority, and allow the senior management team to take on more of the responsibility, and team members to actually become very involved in decision making,” said Mr Baer.

He said it was a complete about-face from the old-fashioned model where the boss would tell everyone what had to be done.

“It gives everybody a voice and a sense of being able to contribute,” said Mr Baer. “People are encouraged to pursue their interests”.

He said most of the work is done well before the senior management team meeting. “All the arguments have been had and it all goes to the full meeting and doesn’t need to be explained because the debate has already taken place in the smaller group.”

Mr Baer, a retired farmer, has been involved with the RFS for 20 years and he says this methodology has big dividends.

“Because everyone knows what’s happening and can operate on the same songsheet, we have a meaningful voice in management, we are heard, respected and very rarely overruled – and we get to have a say on, for instance, who gets a new truck,” he said.

This streamlined process proved valuable during the 2019-2020 bushfire season.

“The whole summer we had some volunteers and salaried staff away all over the countryside for weeks on end, and the office was running on a basic level of staffing,” he said. “But we all knew what was happening and there was a high level of trust.”

RFS South West Slopes Zone district manager, Superintendent Andrew Dillon, said he was very pleased with the award.

“It’s fantastic to see our 16 group officers recognised for their work over many years, not only in firefighting but in planning, decision-making, risk management and consultation to ensure our volunteer firefighters are well resourced and well prepared to protect the community,” he said.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has restricted our ability to get together and celebrate this acknowledgement, but when restrictions ease we will be getting together to celebrate this achievement, and we hope there will be a more formal presentation in Sydney.”

However, on hand to congratulate the team was NSW Member for Cootamundra Steph Cooke, who said the award was well deserved.

“For many years, the South West Slopes Zone senior management team have undertaken the work of the RFS with incredible bravery and professionalism,” said Ms Cooke. “Their skill and selflessness deserves to be celebrated and recognised.”

The announcement of the award was on May 4, which is International Firefighters Day, or St Florian’s Day, which is named after the Patron Saint of Firefighters.

The day traditionally recognises volunteers and staff who have gone above and beyond, showing incredible acts of bravery in protecting the community or delivering the highest level of commitment to the firefighting service that is worthy of special recognition.

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