Ferocious bushfires, floods and leading the NSW response to COVID-19 has kept Gary Worboys in the spotlight. Now all he wants is to come home to the lights of Goulburn from Governors Hill.
Worboys is the NSW Police Deputy Commissioner, Regional NSW. Since Christmas, he has also held the role of NSW State Emergency Operations Controller, with barely a moment to think of those lights twinkling welcome home.
Worboys is based in the NSW Rural Fire Service’s operations centre in Homebush, which has become a combat agency rolling from one emergency to the next. He coordinates ambulance, fire and rescue, transport, the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet, welfare, local government and other government agencies. His home life, golfing mates and gardening are all on hold. He knows Shane Fitzsimmons, the former rural fire chief, now Resilience NSW Commissioner so much better after they helped thousands of residents escape the past summer’s bushfires.
“My role is to make sure if we need to get people out of the South Coast, like we did during the fires, that the roads are open, that we are able to do that in a safe way, that there is welfare support if they are evacuated – all of those things around the emergency I get to influence and coordinate,” says Worboys.
He keeps the agencies’ focus on the emergency. “It’s not about us, it is about communities, about individual people,” says Worboys. “We have been getting really good results so I’m pretty proud of that.”
While not physically strenuous, his work is relentless. “This occupies a lot of your mind all of the day, but I don’t see it as hard work,” he says. “But it is taxing. When I get back to Goulburn, to my family, it gives me a freshen up. Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do, I wake up every day and wonder how I can do it better to make a difference to more people.”
Worboys can see light at the end of the COVID-19 emergency. “But we cannot be complacent,” he says. “You only have to cast your mind overseas and see the number of people who have perished, and here we are in NSW with less than 50 people [dead] and that curve has certainly flattened. But people need to be vigilant and we will come out of it pretty well.”
When Worboys was four years old, his parents moved with their three boys from Narrabri to Blacktown, where his father worked in railways administration. From high school, he first began as a junior trainee, then a police officer in Sydney, then rural NSW. At far flung Walgett and Lightning Ridge, he realised chasing and arresting criminals was only a part of policing. Making communities safer and more harmonious, and working 24/7 on influencing better behaviour on the roads, and when leaving pubs, was all part of the job.
“Of course, in these places you know the people; no-one is anonymous, everyone has a place in the community, and pretty much there is nowhere to hide,” he says.
He continued rising through the ranks. Two decades ago, when he first saw Goulburn’s Governors Hill lights as the new police local area commander, he thought: “Wow, this is so much bigger than what I am used to at Lightning Ridge.”
His wife and children shifted multiple times with him. “We have cried after every town we have left,” he says. “We have become very attached to communities and places, and it becomes quite emotional to pull yourself away. That wrench on his family stopped in Goulburn.
He commuted an hour to Queanbeyan, then an hour-and-a-half to Wollongong, as well as Liverpool, for more senior roles. The lights of Goulburn were always ablaze into the night when he returned home. The same as when he stepped into police headquarters in Parramatta, even further away. As the days and travel lengthened, the Worboys family bought a small unit in Wollongong to ease the load.
“I just had to wrestle my work commitments and career around that journey,” he says. “I have been very happy to look back and say we made the right decision to stay in Goulburn.”
Worboys urges everyone to keep adjusting their lives during COVID-19, and to hang in there for better times when things go back to normal, and the lights of Goulburn from Governor’s Hill shine for his return.