22 December 2021

ESA Commissioner Georgeina Whelan says 2021 was a year of challenges and learning

| Lottie Twyford
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ACT Emergency Services Agency Commissioner Georgeina Whelan

ACT Emergency Services Agency Commissioner Georgeina Whelan says 2021 has been a year of challenging circumstances and learning what true collaboration looks like. Photo: Region Media.

For ACT Emergency Services Agency (ESA) Commissioner Georgeina Whelan, 2021 is best described as a challenging year, but one full of learning opportunities.

After bushfires, floods, hail and storms, COVID-19 lockdown saw the ESA take on new roles supporting the public health response.

Region Media sits down with Commissioner Whelan to discuss the year that was.

The moment that defined 2021: For me, it was a very personal one. It was the first time COVID-19 really hit home and affected me personally.

My brother become very unwell in Sydney, to the point he was hospitalised, and I was unable to get there. Finding out there was nothing I could do to be with him because of lockdown made me feel completely helpless.

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The biggest lesson I learnt: What it truly means to be collaborative. Often we talk about collaboration, cooperation and making concessions, and they are the things that all of us in the various agencies across the ACT have had to do this year to allow us to come together to support the community.

There was no one organisation that could have managed everything alone this year. We all took on roles that were non-traditional – delivering food, managing queues at COVID-19 testing clinics and so on.

Being in a supporting role rather than a leading role was also different.

Cars queuing for COVID-19 testing at EPIC

It was common to see ACT Emergency Services Agency crews and volunteers managing long queues for COVID-19 testing at EPIC and other testing clinics around Canberra. Photo: Shayna Siakimotu.

What 2021 taught me about leadership: Not to have unrealistic expectations. I’ve had to learn to balance my priorities within the agency with those I have to manage due to the changing environment we’re in.

We’ve gone from bushfires to floods and storms to the first COVID-19 lockdown, then to a not great summer, COVID-19 again and now to managing really temperamental weather.

There is lots I want to achieve with my time as Commissioner, but I’ve had to learn to be flexible.

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The highlight of the year: Watching my three daughters navigate lockdown, university, part-time jobs and volunteering. I’ve seen a level of maturity in them and I’ve been so proud. Although I wish they’d fill up the dishwasher (laughs). No, really, my husband and I are very proud of all our children. It must be so tough to be aged 19 to 25 and be locked down for two years, but they’ve really been able to get on with things.

Professionally, watching our first responders – paid staff and volunteers – out there on the frontline working in a challenging and risky environment from a health perspective. A number of our staff had to isolate from their families in order to be able to do their jobs. I’m in awe of them all.

ACT Emergency Services Agency workers on Canberra street

The ACT’s first-responders took on additional roles during COVID-19 lockdown. Photo: ACT Emergency Services Agency.

The hardest thing that happened this year: As a real people-person I took this lockdown really hard. I struggled being unable to visit my siblings and close, but small, extended family. Even though I had my children at home and I was still seeing people on screens or even in the office, I did feel a loneliness about being in lockdown.

Something I’m proud of: Reaching out to ACT Chief Health Officer Dr Kerryn Coleman just to say how proud I was of her for the work she was doing. We quite often don’t take the time to tell people they are doing a great job.

What I wish I did differently: Sometimes I wish I hadn’t spent so much time working from home locked away in my study, and that I’d come up for air occasionally to stop and smell the roses.

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My New Year’s Eve resolution: I don’t like making New Year’s resolutions as I just don’t stick to them. Maybe just to slow down a bit.

What to expect from 2022: A break! I think for myself and the team, 2022 needs to be time for a chance to slow down, stop and take stock of things.

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