10 November 2020

Georgeina's baptism of fire puts her in good stead for the bushfire season ahead

| Michael Weaver
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Georgeina Whelan at bushfire season launch

ESA Commissioner Georgeina Whelan in a reflective mood during the launch of the new bushfire season. Photos: Michelle Kroll.

Georgeina Whelan has a bed ready to roll out at the headquarters of the ACT Emergency Services Agency at Fairbairn as she settles in for her second bushfire season as commissioner.

Last season, she was renowned for rolling up her sleeves and repeatedly staying overnight when the going got tough as the bushfires burned into the collective consciousness of Canberrans during what will be remembered as the ‘black summer’.

Season 2020-21 is looking significantly different, but that doesn’t mean Georgeina Whelan is resting on her laurels.

In 2005 in the wake of the tsunami that hit Thailand and much of Sumatra following a devastating earthquake on Boxing Day 2004, the then Brigadier Whelan was brought in to set up a field hospital on the Royal Australian Navy ship HMAS Kanimbla.

Her actions were lauded then, as they were again during last summer’s bushfires, but they were not without criticism too.

Commissioner Whelan accepts a quicker response in Sumatra may have saved more lives in the same way she would have done some things differently last summer.

Georgeina Whelan

ESA Commissioner Georgeina Whelan at the launch of the firefighter’s coin at the Mint on 29 October. Photo: Michael Weaver.

“There were so many similarities with what I experienced in Sumatra and this summer, where you could have cut me out of one scenario and put me into the other one,” Commissioner Whelan tells Region Media.

“It’s not until you’re in a crisis that you see the gaps in the systems, but I think the experience of last year has made us focus on it being a learning experience and really embracing the learnings that have come out of the season and applying solutions to those problems we faced.”

But Commissioner Whelan said she would rather take the criticism than face the consequences of an unprecedented bushfire season – and she doesn’t use the word ‘unprecedented’ lightly.

“I watched fire move from Queensland down the east coast of Australia. We saw fires run 75 kilometres overnight on the NSW south coast.

“I’m not saying that we got it right here in the ACT or did it any better, but we leveraged off situations not happening here first and observed and learned from what our colleagues were experiencing in other states.”

READ ALSO Bushfire Royal Commission makes 80 recommendations but steers clear of emissions

During the offseason, Commissioner Whelan took a well-earned break – albeit to have surgery on a broken ankle and nose when she slipped on a flight of stairs before being appointed commissioner last year.

“I had two weeks off and a couple of long weekends as well. I’ve had enough time off to catch my breath and do a lot of personal reflection. Getting my nose fixed was really important with the hayfever at the moment.”

The commissioner has also had the chance to reflect on least three separate inquiries into the summer’s bushfires as well as the ESA’s spotlight on feedback from paid and volunteer members.

She said many of the recommendations from the Bushfire Royal Commission may take several years to implement, but words such as “forward-leaning”, “agile” and “robust” feature in Commissioner Whelan’s narrative to ensure the unprecedented is more predictable.

And of course, there is her “team of teams” which has grown to include a deputy commissioner in former ACT chief police officer Ray Johnson, along with a 25 per cent increase in paid Rural Fire Service staff and additional resources for operations, training and planning especially in the ACT Rural Fire Service and State Emergency Service. ACT Rural Fire Service acting chief Rowan Scott’s position will also be confirmed in the coming weeks.

The Commissioner also admits they were “stretched thin” last season.

Georgeina Whelan and Rowan Scott

ESA Commissioner Georgeina Whelan with acting ACT RFS chief Rowan Scott and Parks and Conservation Service firefighters. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

“What we were not well prepared for was to run a seven-week campaign and sometimes you just know you’re not prepared for something until it confronts you. We had the skillsets, we were just stretched pretty thin and there were times when I said I would never like to go through that experience again.”

Commissioner Whelan said new legislation allowing more delegation of responsibilities will ensure last year’s experience remains unprecedented.

Work is also being done to remove the inconsistency with messaging, particularly when a fire like the Orroral Valley fire crossed into NSW and became the Clear Range fire.

And there’s always a bed for the commissioner whose ‘baptism of fire’ last season will put her in good stead for many more to come.

“There’s a level of redundancy in the agency now that will allow us to transition from four and five-day campaigns to seven-week campaigns, so there should be no requirement for me to be sleeping in my office this season. But there’s a roll-out bed there just in case.”

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