Getting the basics right is the priority for new Fire and Rescue NSW Commissioner Jeremy Fewtrell.
NSW Minister for Emergency Services Jihad Dib (image below, left) appointed Jeremy Fewtrell AFSM (image below, right) as Commissioner of Fire and Rescue NSW (FRNSW) on 30 October, saying at the time he was a ‘highly accomplished emergency services leader’.
Widely regarded as a ‘firefighter’s firefighter’, Mr Fewtrell was a popular choice to lead the organisation, with many firefighters privately expressing support for his selection.
The Northern Beaches Advocate met with Commissioner Fewtrell earlier this week at his office in the historic City of Sydney Fire Station (001) at Castlereagh Street. We asked how he felt about taking on responsibility for an organisation with 140 years of history and the mantle of responsibility of guiding it towards 150 in another decade.
“I am immensely excited to be in this role. It means so much, I can’t put it into words.
“It comes with a genuine passion and commitment to the organisation. It’s not just any old company or workplace, it means so much. That’s not just for me, the bulk of our workforce feel the same.
“A really strong connection that so many of our staff have for FRNSW and what we are, who we are, and what we’ve done in the past.
“We’ve got a lot to be proud of, but with that, I think there’s an obligation on us to honour those that have got us to where we are today, by doing a good job and continuing that into the future,” said Comm Fewtrell.
He insists that as clichéd as it may sound, from his early childhood growing up in Canberra, he always wanted to be a firefighter.
“The reason for that was because my grandfather worked for the Fire Brigades. He came back from World War Two and couldn’t be a firefighter but got a job with the Fire Brigades as a Storeman. He was incredibly proud of being part of the organisation and retired as Head Storeman.
“The thing that I learned from him was, this organisation is something special, it’s something amazing, but it’s the contribution that everyone makes.
“Our firefighters do amazing work. They’re able to do that because of all the other supporting elements that enable it to happen. That contribution from our trades and admin staff is just as important.
“My grandfather was incredibly proud, and it meant a lot to our family that he worked for the Fire Brigades. The joy of it was, I’d come and visit Sydney on holidays as a young kid, and he would take me to work with him.
“It was a little kid’s paradise, being able to ramble through the workshops, and look at the trucks. Back then we had bootmakers, tailors, a hose shop, the body shop making the truck bodies.
“There was really a whole industry, and you saw it all there. That was in the old workshops in Spencer Street at Five Dock. So it got into my blood early on, and I knew that it was hard to get in,” recounted Comm Fewtrell.
After leaving school and a doing a stint in the Australian Defence Force Army Reserves, Commissioner Fewtrell completed a Bachelor of Natural Resources at the University of New England at Armidale. He joined Fire and Rescue NSW in 1997, and his first posting was in Sydney at Balmain Fire Station (012).
“That was a real point of transition in Balmain’s history, it had strong working-class roots. It was starting to become a bit more inner city gentrified, but there was a really strong sense of community there.
“The fire station is on Darling Street, the main street just on the edge of the shopping area. We had lots of people calling past and stopping in to say hello. I was only there six months, but in that time I became part of the community.
“I was lucky, my Station Officer was a gentleman called Tony Mason, who was in the last few years of his career. Balmain is a relatively quiet station, and Tony said for a new firefighter, it’s not ideal that you come to a quiet station.
“But he said, ‘While I’ve got you here, I’ll teach you everything I know, and also do my best to get you somewhere busier where you’ll learn more.’
“So then I had the luxury of a six-month masterclass. This guy had done about 37 years of firefighting and was very capable and well respected in the organisation. He really took me under his wing.
“Tony got me to start thinking, ‘What does a career look like? Where do you want to go?’ We set some goals and started to work towards them. It’s easy for those conversations not to happen, and he took the time.
“At that stage, he asked where I wanted to go. I had moved down from Armidale and was keen to go back to regional NSW. I said, ‘I’d love to be an Inspector in the country’. I got to do that, I was the Duty Commander in Dubbo for a number of years,” recalled Comm Fewtrell.
After seven years working in regional NSW, first as Station Officer at Dubbo (280) and then Duty Commander for the Western Plains, Commissioner Fewtrell found himself at an inflection point in his career.
“My wife’s family is from the New England area, and I was up there for four years studying. I have a strong affiliation with regional NSW.
“I was Duty Commander looking after the Western Plains area – Lightning Ridge, Walgett, Brewarrina, Bourke, Cobar, Parkes. It was a big patch of dirt.
“I got to know all communities in that area, it was lovely. I really enjoy it today that I can drive anywhere in a large part of Western NSW and know that I’ll run into someone that I know, it’s nice to have that connection.
“We’ve got four kids, and they were all young at that stage. Living in a regional community is absolutely fantastic because you’ve got all the conveniences, all the services, but you don’t have all the traffic and the stress and the difficulties of doing things,” shared Comm Fewtrell.
“It was a beautiful community, we’d made some really good friendships, and it was a good place. If we stayed, we probably would have ended up staying for the next 20-30 years, it was at that sort of point, but there were a couple of catalysts for change.
“One was our then Assistant Commissioner for Regional Operations, Mark Brown. He’d been one of my instructors when I went through our training college. When I was the Station Officer at Dubbo he asked when I would look at the next career move.
“He said, ‘You’ll know when it’s time’, and it was probably six months later, I thought ‘Yeah, I get it’, it was time to look for the next step. That started to happen again after three and a half years as the Inspector out there.
“The other was [former FRNSW Commissioner] Greg Mullins came out when we were doing a research burn at Gilgandra. It was a really informal conversation, but Greg said to me, ‘What’s next for you?’
“It was an interesting realisation that he saw something that it was worth prompting me to consider my options for the future. That sowed the seed, and shortly after that, I did an Executive Leadership Program at the Australian Institute of Police Management at Manly.
“That exposure to what it takes to lead at a senior level and the challenges for emergency services did two things. It sparked interest that there’s lots to bite off and be involved in and that I had an appetite for it, but it also gave me the confidence to know I could have a good crack at it,” said Comm Fewtrell.
The catalyst came soon after, when he was offered a leadership position at the Fire Investigation and Research Unit (FIRU), where his achievements ultimately led to him being awarded the Australian Fire Service Medal (AFSM) in the Australia Day Awards in 2021.
“When the opportunity to be the Manager of the Fire Investigation and Research Unit came up, that was the right opportunity for us to decide as a family we’d make the move.
“That was a fantastic job, where you are still very operationally focused, and you’re across what was involved in each of the major fires that were happening around Sydney.
“Investigation forms a big part of the overall management of those incidents, but we also did a lot of research on smoke alarms. There was a senate inquiry at the time looking at smoke alarms. Our work was feeding into FRNSW submissions.
“We started some research on sprinklers and I managed to get some changes to the Australian National Construction Code (NCC). In 2012, there was a really nasty fire at Bankstown, and two young girls jumped out of a seventh storey window to escape the fire.
“A lot of the work we did was at the direction of the Coroner, in the wake of that fire, to find out what we could do to make these sort of buildings safer for residents.
“Our team was doing the actual burning research and putting it into practice. There was alternative sprinkler system designs that could be built with no extra costs. We identified trade-offs in the design of the buildings, that meant that you could put sprinklers in buildings that wouldn’t otherwise happen at no extra cost.
“A fire on the sixth floor of a building with a sprinkler in it is a very different proposition for the residents, but also for the firefighters. It’s safer for the community, and safer for our people as well. Those buildings will be there for 50 years or more, and that system will be in there with them,” said Comm Fewtrell.
In charge of an organisation with a proud history he is keen to protect, Commissioner Fewtrell says he is also aware of the need to stay future focused.
“In 2003, I did an exchange and I worked in the UK at Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service in the north-west of England. It was one of the more progressive fire and rescue services in the UK, but there was a big national dispute.
“Part of the reason for the dispute was that nothing had changed since 1978, when they’d had another dispute and had a settlement. Then everything had been frozen in time.
“The biggest thing I learned from my time working in the UK was you can’t ever let that happen, and how damaging it really is to an organisation.
“It might be nice and comfortable, everything’s just how it’s always been, but the world around you is moving on and at some point, you start to look very outdated and off the pace. I’m really aware we can’t let that happen here.
“It’s continual improvement and development of the organisation, staying current, looking at what the emerging trends are, what are the new developments that we need to be concerned about, and how do we make sure that we’re match fit for them?
“Also, what are the community’s expectations of an organisation like ours that provides such an important service? What are the expectations of us in terms of being a good workplace?
“You’ve seen us progress and change, we’ve now got across the organisation close to 13 percent female firefighters, and five percent of our workforce are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage. We’ve made good progress, but of course there’s more to do.
“What I want out of the organisation is everyone to be able to come to work and know that they’ll be treated really well. I expect them to work bloody hard, we’ve got an important job to do, but they will know they are respected, their contributions will be appreciated, and that they look after and support each other.
“When we’ve got that, and everyone’s happy coming into work, it’s a good place to be if we’ve got a good culture and we’ve been focusing on delivering our service to the community.
“We’ve got to keep the organisation doing that. It’s not set and forget, it’s continual conversations. It’s good engagement by managers with their staff, knowing how to get the best out of them and support them, providing them with the equipment and the tools they need. Then telling people what our expectations of them are,” explained Comm Fewtrell.
One of the areas which is rapidly changing is the emergence of lithium-ion battery fires, especially in rechargeable tools, scooters and e-bikes.
“At the moment, we’re spending a lot of time talking with the community about lithium-ion batteries, because of the way that they can rapidly deteriorate and cause an extremely intense fire.
“It’s a conversation with the community, to be aware of this, use these devices safely, charging in the appropriate manner. But there’s also work that we’re doing with the regulators, Fair Trading and the ACCC, to give them our data, our experience and share with them the problems we’re seeing.
“We’ve got our FIRU team doing a major project called SARET, which is the Safety of Alternative and Renewable Energy Technologies, looking at how things perform in a fire, how batteries decompose or degrade and then contribute to the fire.
“That’s to get the data to be able to say, if you’ve got X number of batteries, you need Y amount of fire protection. Also to guide the strategies and tactics for our firefighters to be able to tackle these blazes safely.
“Our job isn’t to stop these big transitions that are happening. Our job is to try and guide it in as safe a manner as possible. To set up the guideposts, or work with regulators and encourage them to set up the guideposts, so that in 20 years’ time, we’re not dealing with all these complicated legacy issues that compromise the safety of the occupants of buildings,” said Comm Fewtrell.
Seeing himself as the custodian of an organisational legacy, Commissioner Fewtrell recognises the importance of focusing on immediate needs, but also has an eye on the 150th anniversary milestone in a decade.
“It’s an interesting time to take up the role, just on the big milestone of 140 years early next year, and then, think about ten years’ time and the 150th.
“From a people perspective, I want to maintain the focus on those cultural elements in the way we work, and the way we support each other. I also want our firefighters to be able to finish their service as firefighters and be in as good condition as possible.
“That’s both physically and mentally. I’d like to think that people will look back and say I made a difference in terms of supporting the mental health and well-being of our people and understanding how we can best support them.
“Operationally, there’ll be all sorts of challenges that pop out over the next 10-20 years. Lithium-ion batteries are an example of that. A few years ago, combustible external cladding on buildings was a really big issue. There’ll be other things that happen.
“I want us to be operationally capable to match the risks that we have at the time, and the ones that can be readily anticipated in the near future. To do that, we need to work on our ability to innovate and improve.
“The time cycle that we have to go through that process is going to have to be much faster than what we currently do, because the pace of technological development will mean these things are coming quicker than ever before. We need to be able to keep up, and that’s an internal challenge for us to improve.
“The bottom line is, we still need to be able to provide a really fast, rapid, effective emergency response. We’ve got a growing population. We’ve got massive expansion about to happen around the aerotropolis in south-western Sydney.
“We need to be looking at how we grow our network of stations to support the growing population of Sydney, but more generally in NSW as well,” said Comm Fewtrell.
The top job comes with the burden of responsibility, but Commissioner Fewtrell insists that getting the basics right and connection to the community will always be the focus.
“I always talk with our crews about personal interaction with members of the community at incidents and the difference that makes.
“Regardless of technological developments and change in our sector, the one thing that firefighters can do is show care and compassion when someone’s going through the devastation of losing their house, being involved in a bad car crash, or heaven forbid, losing a loved one.
“That initial interaction is actually the first step to helping those people on the road to recovery. I always talk to our crews about the value and importance of spending a bit of extra time at a scene.
“You might have put the fire out, that doesn’t mean you pack up in a hurry and shoot off. That time you spend with the affected people makes all the difference, and that’s the thing they talk about.
“They will be appreciative that we put the fire out or we cut them out of the car crash, but they’re not worried about the technical details.
“We’re in the people business at the end of the day, so that bit of genuine care and concern that we show for people and giving them the assistance to maybe take the first steps to start fixing things up is so important,” said Comm Fewtrell.
Having spent his career in FRNSW, the new Commissioner is deeply proud of the people in it.
“Obviously, we’ve got all sorts of metrics and data that we monitor and track how we’re performing.
“Brett Butler at Narrabeen Station does the charity bike ride ‘400in4’, which we just rebranded to ‘Beat The Burn’. We were raising money one day, and we were shaking the little plastic buckets. I was down at Central Railway Station with a few other firefighters collecting money.
“I was Deputy Commissioner at that stage, no-one knew who I was, I was just another firefighter. A homeless guy came up and went to put a $5 note in the bucket.
“I said to him, ‘That’s a really lovely gesture, but we’re doing alright today. People are giving us lots of money, you keep that and look after yourself.’
“He said, ‘I really want to give this to you, because the fireys are the only ones that care for me out in the street. It’s always the fireys that will check to see that I’m okay, and treat me with respect.’
“What a wonderful thing. That’s our people doing that, not because they know the boss is watching. They’re doing that because it’s the right thing to do, and it speaks to the connection that we genuinely have with the community.
“For all the charts, graphs and tables that I will look at, that’s a measure of our culture, and speaks volumes to me of who we are as an organisation. That’s something we should be really proud of,” said Comm Fewtrell.
Images: Northern Beaches Advocate, Fire and Rescue NSW
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