Emergency staff named Canberra Citizens of the Year for bushfire campaign

Dominic Giannini 3 March 2020 1
Chief Minister Andrew Barr (left) and ESA Commissioner Georgeina Whelan

Chief Minister Andrew Barr and ESA Commissioner Georgeina Whelan have lauded all the staff and volunteers who helped tackle the ACT’s worst fire season since 2003. Photos: Dominic Giannini.

All emergency services staff and personnel have been named Canberra’s Citizens of the Year for their valiant and consistent effort in the Territory’s most challenging bushfire season since 2003.

Volunteers and staff from the ACT Emergency Services Agency (ESA) and ACT Parks and Conservation (P&C) were recognised by Chief Minister Andrew Barr at the Arboretum today following a campaign bushfire season.

ESA Commissioner Georgeina Whelan said the organisations do not work for accolades, but it was an honour to be recognised by the ACT community for the tireless work staff and volunteers alike have put in over the last few months.

“We do not come to work to get awards, we come to work to serve our community, but this award is the icing on the cake for what has been a very challenging but professionally rewarding season for us as we worked very hard to keep our community safe,” she said.

“I would like to thank our volunteers who sacrificed time with their families and had no downtime whatsoever in the summer break to [instead] commit to serving the community.”

The ACT People of the Year

The Citizens of the Year award has gone to all the ESA and P&C staff and volunteers who put themselves in danger and worked overtime throughout a campaign fire season.

The Orroral Valley fire burned 80 per cent of the Namadgi National Park, destroying 86,000 hectares with a perimeter of just under 200 km. The fire came within 2 km of Tharwa, and under 6 km of Canberra’s southern suburbs.

To fight this, personnel were averaging 12 to 14 hour days for five to six days in a row before receiving a break, with Georgeina Whelan herself frequently sleeping in her office and only returning home for a handful of nights throughout the campaign.

“Our people are the most extraordinary people who have done the most amazing things under very challenging circumstances. They worked really, really long hours,” she said.

“They certainly stepped up, there were no complaints. These challenging circumstances have brought us closer together as a team.

“Certainly this summer, service is what we have demonstrated to our community, a community that we live in and a community that we love very deeply.”

Deciding on who to give the award to was simple, Chief Minister Barr said, lauding their professionalism and dedication as second to none.

“I have had the honour of being able to make this decision over four or five years and this year was probably the easiest decision-making process,” he said.

“It is not just summer, it is year-round, and it is not just year-round, it is year-on-year-on-year and it is an important thing to recognise and acknowledge.”

ESA Commissioner Georgeina Whelan

ESA Commissioner Georgeina Whelan spent most of her nights sleeping at the office during her first bushfire season in charge.

The feedback from the herculean effort put in by ESA and P&C staff and volunteers this bushfire season has been greatly appreciated by the community, which made the award a no-brainer, Mr Barr said.

“Thousands of staff and volunteers who put themselves between us and danger on many occasions – who came in to assist the community after significant hailstorms, flooding, smoke, and fires – played an outstanding role in supporting our community,” he said.

“The feedback from Canberrans has been very positive and encouraging. People who lived through 2003 and experienced this summer have a very positive view on how the ESA, P&C and the broader ACT Government responded to the summer of 2019/20.”

The ACT Government says they are already looking at how the Territory can better prepare for future disasters.

“That is not to say that we are not always on a path of continuous improvement,” Mr Barr said.

“We will learn the lessons of this summer just as we have previously, but I think it is important today to acknowledge all that went right and we were able to respond in a comprehensive way.”


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One Response to Emergency staff named Canberra Citizens of the Year for bushfire campaign
Greg Batten Greg Batten 7:06 pm 02 Mar 20

Absolutely appropriate. Best bloody idea I’ve heard of for years. Thanks to each and every one of them. Hope they each get a distinctive numbered badge that can be worn on their uniforms.

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