The man at the helm of the NSW Rural Fire Service during a devastating summer of fires has been acknowledged for his leadership and service by being named 2021 NSW Australian of the Year.
At Luna Park on Monday, ex-NSW Fire Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons was recognised along with Isabel Reid, of Wagga Wagga, who was named NSW Senior Australian of the Year, Nathan Parker, of Lismore, NSW Young Australian of the Year, and Rosemary Kariuki, of Oran Park, NSW Local Hero.
National Australia Day Council chief executive Karlie Brand said that during the terrifying bushfire season, Australians were reassured by Commissioner Fitzsimmons' exemplary leadership and empathetic presence.
Shane Fitzsimmons started as a volunteer with NSW RFS in 1985. His father George was a full-time firefighter who was tragically killed in an out-of-control hazard reduction burn in 2000, just six years after his son joined the NSW Rural Fire Service full-time.
Shane Fitzsimmons worked in a range of leadership positions before being endorsed as the organisation's commissioner in 2007. Last summer he guided the state-wide response that included a 74,000-strong crew of mostly volunteers through one of Australia's worst fire seasons. Working long hours, he informed and calmed the public daily while liaising with government leaders and providing comfort to colleagues and family members of firefighters who lost their lives.
Shane Fitzsimmons is now leader of Resilience NSW and said the last fire season and other recent events had kept reminding of the sense of community we had.
He said much of NSW had been on its knees with drought, then absolutely devastated by the bushfires. This was followed by storms and floods before the nation experienced the extraordinary implications of responding to a global pandemic.
"We have seen absolute devastation, damage and despair and extraordinary tragedy with the loss of 26 lives in NSW from the bushfires alone, seven of whom were our frontline firefighters and four volunteers," he said.
"But in the backdrop of such adversity we have seen an extraordinary generosity and extraordinary human spirit, locally here in NSW, right across this great nation and off our shores. A humanity that brought together love and compassion and care that genuinely pulled together.
"Empowered every day I was by the tens of thousands of men and women who were dedicating themselves to responding to and assisting so many people in need during those fires, the majority of whom were volunteers. Men and women simply making a difference in their community for the want of nothing in return but to try and save lives and save as much as they could.
"Then as we have gone on during the last few months we have seen that extraordinary support and commitment globally coming together with generosity and support in funding, in opening one's doors and in all manner of aid and assistance to people who need it most.
"For me that human spirit and that volunteerism is what inspires me every day to know our communities are much better because we have people who give so generously of themselves."
Born in 1932, Isabel Reid is the oldest living survivor of the Stolen Generation. She along with her sister Betty and brother Jack were taken on the way home from school.
As an Elder of the Wiradjuri people, she has worked tirelessly to raise awareness of the Stolen Generation.
Ms Reid said education had helped her draw the strength to do so much.
"When I was taken away as a young child with my sister and my brother ... I didn't get the opportunity to get a good education. So I thought when I really do come home that is maybe what I can do," she said.
"So I went to TAFE and learnt to read and write.
"When I came home from that I taught the young children to read and write at school. And they taught me a lot too.
"My life is just pretty simple. And what I do I do for my community and for all the children out there who need the helping hand that I didn't get way back then."
Pilot and Invictus Games gold medallist Nathan Parker was on the way to his dream job as a fighter pilot when a military bus accident left him badly injured and his left hand amputated. He returned to civilian flying in three months and resumed military and university duties within seven months.
He was the first upper-limb amputee in the Australian Defence Force Academy's history to complete his final 12 months and graduate and now works as a flying instructor.
Rosemary Kariuki is the multicultural community liaison officer for the Parramatta Police. She specialises in helping migrants who are facing domestic violence, language barriers and financial distress. Recognising isolation is a huge issue she devised ways to help migrant women leave their house and meet other women.
The four winners will now go on to represent NSW at the Australian of the Year Awards to be announced on the eve of Australia Day in Canberra by Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
ACM, publisher of this newspaper, is a proud partner of the Australian of the Year Awards.