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Meet One of the World's Largest Volunteer Fire Departments

Australia is one of the most fire-prone regions on the planet—and protecting its most populous state is the New South Wales (NSW) Rural Fire Service (RFS).

New South Wales, with a population of more than seven million and spanning more than 800,000 square kilometers or 80-million hectares, has an extensive history of fire due to its size and landscape. Approximately 28% of the state is considered bush fire-prone land, with 1.3 million properties situated in bush fire-prone areas. Many of those properties are on the urban interface in the state’s capital, Sydney, which is surrounded by bushland.

To deal with the ever-present threat of fire, residents of the small southern NSW town of Berrigan banded together more than 100 years ago to form the first volunteer bush fire brigade—the birth of the modern-day NSW RFS.

From its humble beginnings more than a century ago, the NSW RFS has grown into a professional, versatile, well-resourced and internationally recognized firefighting authority, consisting of more than 70,000 volunteer members protecting approximately 95% of the state’s land mass. These members are supported by approximately 800 staff, the majority of whom work in rural and regional areas.

The NSW RFS is the lead agency for bush and grass fires in New South Wales; however, its volunteers fulfill a versatile role by attending a range of incidents and activities, including structure fires, motor-vehicle accidents, search and rescues, hazard-reduction activities and community-engagement events. NSW RFS members work closely with those from other agencies at many of these incidents.

The backbone of the NSW RFS is its volunteers, and its members are trained to very high levels of competence to ensure they know what to do during emergency situations and how to stay safe at all times. More than 70 different courses are aimed at developing leadership and specialized operational skills.

In addition, the NSW RFS has a long history of helping other states and regions in times of need. This includes deploying approximately 4,000 firefighters, fire managers and support personnel to the Black Saturday bush fires in Victoria in February 2009.

NSW RFS members have also been deployed to the United States, providing valuable expertise and a shared opportunity for the development of further skills. The Service also provides training for fire and related agencies at home and abroad.

The Service is headed by Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons, who is responsible for managing and controlling the activities of the Service and executing legislative responsibilities, such as the coordination of firefighting activities during major incidents. The commissioner is advised by an executive and representatives of the Rural Fire Service Association, the peak volunteer body.

The NSW RFS has an integrated and strategic approach to reducing risk to the community from fire. This includes comprehensive risk-management programs to reduce bush fire hazards and reduce fire ignitions and the development of regulations to improve the safety of properties in bush fire-prone areas.

Anthony Clark is a member of the NSW RFS Corporate Communications team.

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