Dealing with the impacts of climate change and the wellbeing of firefighters are the priorities for the boss of Fire and Rescue NSW (FRNSW).

FRNSW Commissioner Paul Baxter, who has held the top job for almost five years, was at the reopening of Manly Fire Station this month. He took the time afterwards to sit down with the Northern Beaches Advocate and talk about his time in charge of FRNSW and where the fire service is headed.

Commissioner Baxter said the restoration of the hundred-year-old Manly Fire Station acknowledged the importance of heritage and community, while also looking to the future.

“I think everyone in the community generally knows where their local fire station is. People can knock on the door if it’s open, bring their kids in to hop on the fire truck. Firefighters love engaging with the public at that level.

“In this instance, the [Manly] Fire Station was big enough for us to be able to make the modifications that we needed, and to upgrade it to a modern facility that it needs to be.

“Things have changed a lot. There were volunteer firefighters based here, now we’ve got permanent crews that are available 24/7 and we know so much more about firefighting and the dangers of it. We’ve got to provide proper facilities, because this isn’t just a workplace, this is a place where firefighters live for the 24-hour shifts that they do.

“We want to be able to provide a good, safe location for them. The workforce is far more diverse, we’ve got quite a high proportion of women in the job now. When this fire station was first built, there were no women in the job at all. They were all at home looking after families.

“We’re really conscious of building our fire stations to maintain what we call clean and dirty areas, which has to do with the carcinogens that are prevalent in all the fires that we attend, whether it’s a house fire, an industrial fire, a hazardous materials fire, or even a car fire.

“The substances and the carcinogens that are given off are horrendous and we know there’s about 12 cancers that firefighters are more likely to suffer than general members of the population. We take that really seriously and we’ve been able to achieve that in the Manly Fire Station.

“It’s just beautiful, it’s an iconic part of Sydney, it’s an iconic part of Australia, and the fire station itself is iconic. So to be able to reinvest, it’ll last for another 50 years probably before we have to do anything else to it again,” said Comm Baxter.

Emergency Services Minister Elliott, Member for Manly James Griffin and FRNSW Commissioner Paul Baxter

Commissioner Baxter had an extensive background in emergency services in New Zealand before moving to Sydney to take on the top job at Fire and Rescue NSW in 2017. Initially a rescue firefighter in the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF), he has also been an ambulance officer as well as a 30-year career in the New Zealand Fire Service, where his last role was Chief Executive and National Commander.

“I started as a volunteer firefighter. My dream was to be a pilot. I became hooked on emergency services and firefighting, so I coupled my interest in aviation and firefighting and went into the Air Force as a rescue firefighter. I just did a couple of years in there, I was hoping to go into air crew, but the path was going to be too long and I was an impatient young man.

“I was more and more hooked on firefighting so I joined the Urban Fire and Rescue Service in New Zealand, which is a national service. I started on a fire truck as a recruit firefighter and through the first few years of my service I also became quite interested in medical work.

“I worked as a volunteer ambulance officer. I trained as a medic. I ended up doing 22 years, both as a volunteer and in some instances a full-time medic as well, for the ambulance service in New Zealand. I thoroughly enjoyed those jobs as well, and progressed up through the ranks in New Zealand over a long period and ended up the boss in New Zealand.

“I talk to recruits and say, I never joined the job and wanted to be the boss, I was just happy being a firefighter. That’s the advice that I give to new people when they start today. Be really good at the job you do today, the rest takes care of itself. That was certainly the case for me.

“I had other people encouraging me to take the next step. I think that’s the best advice, when other people see something in you and go, ‘Hey, have you thought about that promotion? You’d be really good at that’. I think that’s the right time to be taking those jobs rather than jumping up too soon before you’re ready, in order to be successful at that next level.

“I’ve been really fortunate in my career. I wasn’t a scholar by any means, I always joked the best three years of my school life was Year 12. I left without very many formal qualifications. It wasn’t until I got to the fire service that I started to learn that I could actually achieve, and particularly where I had an interest in something.

“I went on and finished a fire engineering degree and a business degree. The organisation supported me and it certainly helped me progress after that in the organisation,” reflected Comm Baxter.

Commissioner Baxter said furthering his education on the job opened his eyes to the way work practices could be improved.

“When you’re working across strategy and accounting, and quantitative business analysis, you get opened up to new things. It’s the old saying, you don’t know what you don’t know. Until you invest some of your time in learning, you don’t realise how things could be.

“I always strive for wanting to make things better. Doing a business degree while you’re working in a management role is really helpful, because you can see how that can be applied. I was able to use some of those things that I was learning to apply in the workplace.

“My bosses were very good to me, they really encouraged me and gave me opportunities. I travelled overseas a lot, I’ve studied in the USA. Looking at all the different fire and emergency services just opens you up to how good things can be, also how bad things can be as well.

“I think we’ve got the balance right here in Australasia. Australia and New Zealand fire services have been together for a long time. We were born out of the United Kingdom. London Fire Brigade and all the original settlers that came to Australia and New Zealand brought all that with them.

“The paramilitary stuff flowed over from returning servicemen that came into the likes of the fire services and police and created those systems and structures that are in place for good reason, but in some ways now, we’re trying to break free of the shackles of some of those old norms that hold us back, into being more progressive in our ways of thinking,” explained Comm Baxter.

About to chalk up five years in the top job at Fire and Rescue NSW, Commissioner Baxter said it is pleasing to see the results of early work bearing fruit.

“It was quite timely when I arrived, because the long-term strategy of the organisation had just been completed. They were entering a new phase of planning for the mid and long term about our priorities and where we wanted to be. I wasn’t for one moment arrogant enough to think that I had all the answers and I’d come in to be the hero leader.

“We engaged with our stakeholders, the government and government agencies, and with the community about what they wanted in their fire service, but also with our staff. Hundreds of staff from right across the state from all of our different work groups, all of our different geographic locations, to ask from their perspective, what was good about the place and what needed to change, and what were the opportunities?

“Funnily enough, we did that in Manly. We brought groups together at the Australian Institute of Police Management at Collins Beach Road. Over a series of five days, we brought hundreds of our firefighters and staff in and went through a very logical process for what was good, what was bad, and what was ugly, and what did we want to do about it.

“We took some months after that to carve out a strategy for the things that were really important. We set strategic priorities about going out and achieving those objectives. The result is reflected with the reopening of the Manly Fire Station. One of the big concerns for firefighters was the management of their exposure to carcinogens.

“The way that we’re building fire stations and refitting fire stations like here [Manly], is a result of the work that we did back then. One of the other areas that was important to firefighters was support around mental health. It’s a community wide issue but it’s also a very important issue for our frontline staff, whether it’s paramedics, firefighters, police officers, or frontline health staff.

“Being a workplace to support the trials and tribulations of doing the job that we have to do, that we’re paid to do, means that we need to get those things right. We’ve been supported by government to improve our game there and we’ve done really good work. I’m happy to say we’ve got far more resources in that now and we’re starting to kick it out of the park.

“A real surprise to us in those early days was cultural behaviours that came out. Some bad behaviours that firefighters themselves were calling out, it was racism, sexism, favouritism, as we refer to it today, all the ‘isms’. That really shocked us, it was a real surprise, we didn’t see that coming.

“We certainly knew there was some history of that in the past, it’s the way those old male dominated organisations were and it was a reflection of society, still is a reflection of society. One of the mainstays of our whole strategy has been around behaviour and our culture as an organisation.

“That’s not to say that everything about the organisation was bad because it certainly wasn’t. Fire and Rescue NSW and its forebears, NSW Fire Brigade and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade before that from the 1800s, was and is a highly successful organisation.

“Around behaviour, we’ve been trying to identify clearly what are the bad behaviours that we don’t want anymore, that we don’t value? What are the good behaviours that we don’t want to lose? What are some of the new ones that we want to adopt?

“We were very careful around recognising and acknowledging the good behaviours that got us to where we are today. For the most part, the public and the community really value firefighters and Fire and Rescue NSW.

“It was people internally saying, we don’t like the way we act towards each other. So when we were out in the street, when we’re doing things for the community, it was all good, but when we were back in the station it was how we treated and supported each other that was the problem.

“Not being supportive of people who might be struggling, saying things like, ‘Take a cement pill and get over it’. That was brought out in work that was done by the Beyond Blue team, a thousand of our people responded and said the support mechanisms within the service weren’t where they needed to be.

“We have made really good progress. Over the last four years, every year, we’ve made improvements, and people in the organisation are saying it’s better, and we’re doing better across all those measures. There are still measures that we have to work on and there’s still some that aren’t where they need to be.

“The hard thing is understanding of all we’ve done, what has worked and what hasn’t worked. We’re trying to understand what people value the most, and where we’re achieving good improvements.

“One of the other big areas we looked at was how we engage with government. We’re a government agency, we spend nearly a billion dollars of the community’s taxes every year running FRNSW. We want government to understand the capability they have got in this organisation,” said Comm Baxter.

FRNSW Commissioner Paul Baxter

For all the advances in firefighting techniques and equipment, Commissioner Baxter said the most important aspect of firefighting is still people.

“We can’t put out a single fire with a fire truck or a fire station. They are important assets to have but we don’t turn a wheel without the people hopping into a truck.

“You hear all those corporate jargons, ‘Our people are our most important asset’, which is generally just a corporate by-line. With firefighting and emergency services, it’s absolutely the core of what we do.

“I often say, if you gave me the option of taking all our fire stations and fire trucks away, or all our firefighters, I’d rather have our firefighters. You could rebuild it from the ground up, and get it going again.

“Funnily enough, when we set out the original strategy, one of the issues that came out was the community doesn’t know what we do. They don’t recognise what we do today, compared to what we used to do. When you talk to them about it, they go, ‘Oh that’s right, I’ve seen you there’, but they think we just do building fires and that’s it.

“They don’t realise we look after all the hazardous materials events like the train derailment at Nana Glen earlier in the year. Our crews were tied up there for about a month decanting and getting rid of all that environmental mess. Protecting the environment is really important to people.

“We perform a raft of rescues across the state, whether it’s a motor vehicle crash, or someone is off a cliff, or just fallen over on a track and needs to be carried out, to assist the paramedics,” said Comm Baxter.

FRNSW Deputy Commissioner Megan Stiffler with Manly firefighters

In terms of the issues that FRNSW must address, Commissioner Baxter is quick to respond with climate change and ensuring FRNSW reflects the community it serves.

“We’re going to undertake another piece of work, similar to what we did back in 2017, looking at the longer term needs of the community. I think it should be of no surprise to anybody what’s driving our thinking, the most, not solely, but the most, is what impact climate change will have on emergency services.

“You’ve only got to look at the last couple of months, at storms and severe weather events that are hitting us. They’ve always hit us but they are more acute, and they’re more frequent than they used to be.

“Fire and Rescue crews in the urban areas deal with that every day. Whether it’s trees down, whether it’s wires down, Fire and Rescue are the first responders and backbone support to the other services like SES [State Emergency Service], RFS [Rural Fire Service] and the Police. Fire and Rescue NSW are the paid service, so it’s the core of immediately available, trained staff. We’ve got a guarantee of response.

“We’ve got a huge role to play in supporting volunteer agencies. Fire and Rescue’s responsibility is to look after urban areas. Those urban/rural interface areas where bush backs onto houses is where the highest risk of losing property and life actually is.

“We take that very seriously and we know that there’s more coming in the near future, maybe not this season with the amount of rain that we’ve seen, but it’s certainly coming. It will dry out at some stage and the growth that’s occurring is incredible.

“All around the world, you’re seeing the impact of climate change. No matter what your beliefs are around the causes of climate change, it’s changing. I was at the Emergency Services Institute and I saw a book in the library there which drew my attention, which said ‘Climate Change 1995’.

“So it has been changing since then. What I’m interested in is the impact on us as an agency, and the expectations of the community and government, for us to equip ourselves to be able to deal with what’s coming down the line in terms of more frequent and more concurrent emergencies.

“We also want little girls to look into the service and see that it’s a viable option for them, that being a firefighter is something that is actually open to them. In decades gone by, they would have looked at the fire truck, seen a bunch of white men and thought, ‘That’s probably not an option for me’.

“Today, particularly around greater Sydney, they will look at a fire truck and they will often see a woman firefighter driving a fire truck, being in charge of that fire truck or being an active member. Fire and Rescue NSW has done exceptionally well to move from very low rates of female participation to year on year increases in the amount of women in our service. I think it has made it a better place to work, I truly believe that.

“It’s the growth of our culture to being more holistic, and that goes across all of the minority groups for the community as well. First and foremost, we’re here to keep the community safe and we’re better able to do it when we understand how different community groups might actually operate.

“You go through areas of Sydney where English is not spoken. Now we’re getting a number of firefighters that are coming in from those different community groups, it’s just fantastic. We just saw another group of indigenous firefighters graduate from our employment program, that is enriching our culture as an organisation from an old Anglo-Saxon, ex-military type of person that made up our service, to a service now much better reflecting the community,” said Comm Baxter.

Manly Fire Station

Commissioner Baxter said that providing access to real-time information and improving the fire safety of buildings protects both firefighters and the community.

“Your average firefighter on a fire truck today has got so much technology and information available at their fingertips, mobile data terminals telling them what a building is, what’s in the building and what the hazards are.

“The image of a firefighter with char across their face, running into a building and carrying out a damsel in distress is an old image. It shouldn’t be like that. The sad reality is that the majority of people that die in fires today are most often dead before a fire truck leaves the fire station.

“Being able to prevent those incidents from occurring in the first place, and equipping the public to know how to keep themselves safe, whether they’re in a home on a quarter acre block of land, or whether they are in a high rise apartment. We saw back in 2013 just prior to my time, a woman in an apartment complex at Bankstown jump for safety and die subsequent to that, because there was no fire protection within the building. There was an alarm system but there was no sprinkler system.

“I say to recruits, while we all want to do our job and we all want to save people, the best way to save them is stopping a fire from occurring in the first place. Or, if a fire does occur, fixed systems saving them and then be able to get themselves out of the building.

“There is nothing fun when you’re a firefighter about taking a dead child from a building. I’ve done that and it still haunts me today. It haunts any firefighter who’s done that.

“You’ve seen in the bushfire space with our firefighters now flying drones or remotely piloted aircraft systems to understand what areas we need to burn off, which has got the most vegetation grown. Being on top of the technology is really going to change what we do.

“Safety is paramount, and we still see too many firefighters injured. We’re a lot better than we used to be but it just doesn’t make sense for a firefighter to race into a building today that’s fully involved in fire, where there’s no life at risk, and risking their life and their crew’s life, only to see the building bulldozed tomorrow. Having our officers make good, informed decisions is really important.

“I recall earlier this year, where we had two of our firefighters injured with burn injuries from going into an illegal manufacturing operation and the building had bulk quantities of methanol in it. If you understand the properties of methanol when it burns, it burns with invisible flame, and there was this rapid propagation and the firefighters couldn’t see it, we didn’t know what was in the building.

“This is the whole thing about us having more information about where are those substances going, and that our firefighters know their local area, they know what’s in those buildings, and we plan for that. But the reality is we seriously injured a couple of our firefighters for no real reason.

“We require our frontline officers to make really difficult decisions, but it’s a balance. If we know life is in danger, then firefighters will take calculated risks to rescue and save life, but if it’s not a survivable set of circumstances, we don’t want to lose more people to save a building.

“With heritage buildings, we have the ability to put fixed protection fire systems in them, which will stop them from burning down. Sprinkler systems will hold a fire until the fire service arrives, and oftentimes completely extinguish the fire. It’s a no brainer, when we want to maintain a building like a 100-year-old fire station, having sprinkler systems and fire detection systems in them is an investment for the future. There’s so many heritage buildings around the state that need to be protected for the future.

“The best prevention mechanisms are the engineered solutions. The reason people survive car accidents today, much more than they did in the past is because the engineered solutions in a car activate for you, the side intrusion bars, the airbags, the restraint systems. You don’t have to do anything else other than crash your car and they all work. That’s exactly the same in fire protection in buildings, you don’t have to do anything.

“We’ve got smoke doors, fire rated doors that stop burning coming through, and fire detection systems and smoke alarms in our commercial buildings, the same as in the house, that gives you that early warning, that you’ve got a fire. That’s critical in houses today, because you’ve got only minutes from when a fire starts, until that fire is not survivable.

“That’s regulated in commercial buildings and apartments with fire wardens, but where we see people die or injured is generally because they haven’t had early detection and they haven’t taken appropriate actions to get out of the building and not go back into the building to get a watch, family photo or unfortunately the cat or the dog, which is probably already long gone,” said Comm Baxter.

FRNSW Commissioner Paul Baxter

Advances in technology is a double-edged sword according to Commissioner Baxter, with both opportunities and risks for firefighters. Electric vehicles, solar power and home batteries are all on the FRNSW radar, as are trends in consumer goods that may be causing fires.

“It is presenting us a whole new range of hazards. The photo electric cells on the roofs of houses are generating energy the whole time. We watch this stuff really carefully, whether it’s a certain washing machine that might be causing more fires than other ones. We watch model and make really carefully in our fire statistics so that if we see emerging trends, we act on those and instigate product recalls.

“Electric cars can be a hazard. In a motor vehicle collision, we’ve got to cut the cars up, so we need to know where the cables are running and how we isolate them. They burn very intensely when they catch fire but we’ve not seen a trend yet where they are spontaneously lighting, or causing us any hazards.

“In houses with solar panels and stored batteries, there’s been an exponential increase in the amount of them installed. We’re not seeing patterns where we are alarmed about them being the cause of fires. What we’re seeing more often is they’re involved if there is a fire in a house. It’s early days, but we’re watching it really carefully to see if there’s anything we need to take action on.

“The next issue coming down the pipeline is hydrogen. We will see big hydrogen facilities. We’ve got a specialist in-house who is working on hazards for that. We’re probably going to see hydrogen powered cars with hydrogen cells in them. It’s something that we’re going to have to get our heads around.

“The problem is, we see it when it has gone bad. Things are great when everything is running fine, but we see things when there’s been a fire or there has been some form of a collision, which is worst case scenario.

“We’re a big fleet operator. We’ve got some electric vehicles and we’re actively looking at what electric fleet we can bring onboard for fire trucks and what settings we could use them in. When we are at an incident we have to pump water and there’s no solution that we’re aware of yet where we can continuously pump for hours with an electric vehicle. So at the moment it’s electric powered truck, but a diesel powered pumping device.

“We are going to look at those technologies and government is supporting us trialing them into the future. We will give those a go and see how they operate. We’re interested as an organisation on our impact on the community as well. Over the road [Manly Station] on the roof, you’ll see the solar panels that are up there. We are trying to take advantage of that change in technology as well.

“We’re even finding it with our tools. You would be familiar with the term ‘the jaws of life’, which are traditionally run by a petrol motor over the top of a hydraulic motor. We have now got battery powered tools. We’re starting to roll those out in the fleet.

“They’ve got some really good advantages, because previously we’ve had to have hydraulic cables rolled out across an accident scene. Not only have you got a trip hazard but if you’re down the side of a bank, it’s quite difficult to get these to work.

“We’ve got some constraints around the weight of the batteries that you’ve got to carry, but over time, what we’re seeing is the battery capacity is getting bigger, the size is getting smaller, so things are advancing. We’ll be right there with everybody else in that technology area,” explained Comm Baxter.

Manly Fire Station reopening

Asked about the camaraderie on display between firefighters at the reopening of Manly Station, Commissioner Baxter said it extended across all emergency services.

“I think the community should be really happy about the relationships between emergency services. I’ve seen it everywhere, but it’s very strong here in NSW and Sydney. It’s exceptionally strong at all levels, from my relationships with the commissioners, which is exceptional, to frontline firefighters, paramedics, police officers. It is really wonderful. It’s a can-do attitude and people get on and get things done.

“It’s really fantastic. As a good example of just how deep the feeling is, our crews support NSW Ambulance every day on incidents, getting access into buildings and helping paramedics move patients from difficult circumstances.

“Across the state, we’ve got now 13 of our stations that are trained to be community first responders. They’re trained by NSW Ambulance in communities where there is no ambulance. They are the first responder to all emergency medical events in those communities.

“We’re increasing that year on year. It is in communities that haven’t got to the level they require a full-time ambulance service yet. Our crews are trained to give medications and medical care to a high level and they hold the fort, until a road ambulance or air ambulance gets on scene,” said Comm Baxter.

This interview was held with FRNSW Commissioner Paul Baxter on 10 December 2021. His comments about being prepared to deal with the impacts of climate change came nine days before the freak storm that devastated an area between Dee Why and Narrabeen that saw all Northern Beaches FRNSW crews form part of the combined emergency services response.

Images: Northern Beaches Advocate

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