Many have asked how the face of the bushfire emergency in Canberra, Georgeina Whelan, has been handling the pressures of providing almost constant updates to the community.
“Thank you for that question,” the commissioner of the ACT Emergency Services Agency said during one of her many public updates as the Orroral Valley fire pushed the boundaries of the ACT and the limits of many who have watched it from Canberra.
“Usually, I don’t try and get that up close and personal with people, but I am obviously a very relatable individual,” Commissioner Whelan told local and international media on Sunday.
“As a non-firefighter, I’m hoping I’m relaying the information in plain speak to our community as I would want it to be exchanged as a resident.
“What I can say is that I have the best team I could possibly want or need behind me.”
As a relative newcomer to the role facing her first bushfire season, Commissioner Whelan is no stranger to an emergency, having spent 33 years in the Australian Army where she rose through the ranks to the rank of brigadier. She was also instrumental in setting up and leading a team in an offshore field hospital onboard a Royal Australian Navy warship following the Boxing Day tsunami in 2003.
Whelan is also a wife and mother of four, including a child with special needs.
“My team are constantly stepping up and providing me with the technical information I need, so I can assess, evaluate and make the decisions that I need to make and provide the direction that I need to make as the emergency controller and as the commissioner,” she said.
“But I’ve got to tell you, they are keeping a really close eye on me. They make sure I get the rest that I need and find me the time to take time out and have a cup of coffee.
“I have my mentors supporting me. Shane Fitzsimmons (NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner) has been on the phone and texting me, giving me the advice I need. But also, there are the experienced senior commissioners from around the country, they look out for the new people.
“But I can say that after 33 years of experience in the military, I do understand the importance of keeping myself where I need to be – up to date and ready to go – and that my work-rest cycles are as equally as important as my firefighters on the ground.”
Commissioner Whelan said she had nothing but praise for the community’s feedback during the bushfire emergency.
“Can I say to the community, you’re just great. Thank you for the support that you are providing myself as the commissioner and my staff here in the ESA.
“We are really feeling that support and it’s what keeps us going. It makes what we do very worthwhile.”
Before taking on the role of ESA Commissioner, Whelan led the ACT State Emergency Service.
In 2015, the then Brigadier Whelan won Telstra ACT Businesswoman of the Year and was responsible for the healthcare of 71,000 Australian Defence Force (ADF) members.
During her time in the Australian Army, Brigadier Whelan led 54 military health facilities and 1800 staff across Australia, providing healthcare to 56,000 full-time and 15,000 part-time Australian ADF members.
Whelan was awarded a Conspicuous Service Cross for developing an ADF rehabilitation and mental health program in 2003.
She has served overseas several times during her career, including a stint in northern Sumatra, Indonesia, in 2003-4, where she commanded the ANZAC Field Hospital following the devastating Boxing Day tsunami at Banda Aceh. She earned the Order of Australia for this work and former Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove applauded her humility and leadership skills, and praised her ability to inspire people to achieve extraordinary things under arduous conditions.
Whelan said her forte is the ability to manage, lead and inspire her team to achieve success.
“I am not afraid to ask questions, champion new initiatives and encourage innovation,” she said.
“The world needs women who inspire commitment, loyalty, excellence and diversity to deliver great outcomes irrespective of the field they are in.”