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Regardless Of Who Actually Wins, Shane Fitzsimmons IS Australian Of The Year

As bushfires have decimated our beloved homeland, destroyed our wildlife, and killed at least 26 people, Australians have searched for leadership and found many of our elected officials woefully inadequate.

Instead, we have found the leaders we need in our neighbours and our friends: the Rural Fire Service. Men and women who have done everything in their power to protect our homes and our lives, who have volunteered their time and energy, forgone their family holidays and Christmas lunches, their sleep and their jobs, for us.

And NSW RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons has been the public face of this leadership, with a style that is all heart, compassion, and support -- in stark contrast to the bully-boy style of the Prime Minister that has proven absolutely useless, and downright damaging, in the crisis we find ourselves in.

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Members of the NSW Rural Fire Service have formed a guard of honour to farewell Andrew O'Dwyer, a Sydney firefighter killed while protecting communities from a bushfire last month.

With the awards for Australian of the Year mere weeks away, a petition on change.org  with more than 20,000 signatures is calling for Commissioner Fitzsimmons to given the top award.

NSW RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons advises media on the state's bushfires and total fire bans during a press conference on Friday, January 10. (Image: AAP)

To be clear, he is not on the shortlist. Nominations for the awards closed back in 2019, and finalists for each state have already been announced.

And the state winners are all great Australians, showcasing many of the values we like to see in ourselves as a nation -- from marine, Antarctic, and climate scientist Dr Jess Melbourne-Thomas and orthopaedic surgeon and human rights advocate Professor Munjed Al Muderis, to musical storyteller Archie Roach and women’s rugby league pioneer Katrina Fanning. Any one of them would be a deserving winner of the top gong.

But, in the hearts and minds of Australians, 2020 belongs to Shane Fitzsimmons. He is the Australian of the Year regardless of the official awards.

He and his team of dedicated volunteers are the embodiment of everything Australians aspire to be: community-focused, empathetic, team players. They have brought the nation together instead of dividing us. They remind us all that, while we may be relatively small in terms of population, when we work together we can be mighty. We needn’t look to the Australian cricket team for inspiration, at the moment, our local RFS branch gives us all the inspiration we need.

Commissioner Fitzsimmons and his team have reassured us, guided us, and patiently explained the situation and strategies to us in innumerate media appearances in recent weeks. We can rely on him to tell us the truth and stick to the facts. He has shown empathy, deep respect, and humanity in handling the destruction of homes, the deaths of potentially a billion animals, and the tragic deaths of at least 17 people in NSW alone.

After volunteer firefighter Geoffrey Keaton died while battling blazes south of Sydney, Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons gave Keaton's young son Harvey a medal in his father's honour. (Image: RFS)
Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons with Charlotte O'Dwyer, the daughter of NSW RFS volunteer Andrew O'Dwyer during her father's funeral service on January 7. (Image: Getty)

He has buried three of his own volunteers and still managed to support us all in our national grief.

This crisis has reminded us just how much we rely on volunteers in Australia. From the volunteer surf lifesavers at the beach, to the SES and RFS when disaster strikes, to the St John’s Ambos keeping us and our families safe when we’re out having fun. Fitzsimmons himself began his career at the RFS as a volunteer. The culture of volunteering is part of the very best of Australia and it is something that needs to be recognised and celebrated.

If a leader is measured by how good their team is, Fitzsimmons’ team has shown him to be one of our absolute best. He and his team have stepped up and stepped into the breach. They’ve literally walked through fire. And they’re still walking through it.

Fire crews take a break at the Wingello, NSW RFS Station on January 5. (Image: Getty)
RFS firefighters battle a spot fire on November 13 in Hillville, NSW. (Image: Getty)

“We’d follow him anywhere,” said Bundanoon firefighter Peter Lockerbie and, quite frankly, I think the whole of Australia would -- all of New South Wales at the very least. He has given us comfort and confidence at a time when we feel scared and adrift.

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I would encourage everyone to nominate Commissioner Fitzsimmons for Australian of the Year 2021. Hopefully by then he and his team may have the space and energy to truly feel our gratitude. I don’t think they have that now.

But, even though he won’t be the official Australian of the Year 2020, I don’t think there’s an Australian barbeque that won’t feature a raised glass to him and his team. We are united in our gratitude. Fitzsimmons and his RFS team are our most valuable players.