For Fire & Rescue New South Wales (FRNSW) Commissioner Paul Baxter, making hard decisions under pressure can ultimately mean life or death. That’s an outcome few can say they face on a daily basis. But with more than 30 years of fire service experience, Paul knows more than most about what makes a unified and successful team.

“Above all, it’s about an ‘outside in’ approach. A leader must focus on what’s best for their stakeholders. For me, this means finding the best way to help the people who look for fire safety advice or dial 000 in an emergency,” he explains.

Paul Baxter, Commissioner of Fire & Rescue NSW
Paul Baxter, Commissioner of Fire & Rescue NSW

Starting his career as a volunteer firefighter, Paul moved on to become a firefighter with the New Zealand Air Force, and then with the New Zealand Fire Service (NZFS). There, he worked his way up the ranks until he earned the role of National Commander, responsible for 10,000 career and volunteer firefighters working from more than 400 locations across the country. Paul came to NZFS at one of its lowest points – just one year after the devastating 2011 Christchurch earthquake that killed 185 people and injured many more.

“The organisation was under siege from the media as well as post-incident reviews and inquiries. I drew on all my skills and energy to support the team over the next few years, to take responsibility for what didn’t go well and focus on improving our processes,” he says. Paul introduced a new organisational vision and strategy that resulted in monumental change for the sector in New Zealand. “While previous external attempts to reform fire services had failed, we took an internal reform approach and we emerged from the ‘fog’ better and stronger."

"By aligning with our Board and influencing politicians, we helped create modern legislation to take New Zealand’s fire and emergency services into the future.” The NZFS is now recognised worldwide as a capable organisation largely due to Paul’s leadership and focus on workforce engagement and innovation. He amalgamated its urban and rural services into a new organisation under new legislation and it is now called Fire & Emergency New Zealand.

“We emerged from the ‘fog’ better and stronger.”

Until recently, Paul was also Chair of the Asia–Pacific region of the UN’s International Search & Rescue Advisory Group, and oversaw New Zealand’s achievement of UN accreditation as a Heavy Urban Search and Rescue Task Force. Paul is currently President and Board Chair of the Australasian Fire & Emergency Services Council (AFAC) – the National Council for all fire and emergency agencies across Australia and New Zealand representing more than 300,000 career and volunteer staff through its 31 member agencies. Complementing this, in January 2017 he started a new chapter in his career as Commissioner of FRNSW.

Founded in 1910 as NSW Fire Brigades, FRNSW is the state government agency responsible for the provision of fire, rescue and hazmat services in cities and towns across the state. Aimed at enhancing community safety, confidence and quality of life, FRNSW is one of the world’s largest urban fire and rescue services, and the busiest in Australia. It currently has more than 7,000 firefighters, 6,000 community fire unit members, 700 firefighting vehicles and a network of 335 fire stations.

“We are on a ‘good to great’ journey,” says Paul. “When I started last year, an old program of work was coming to an end and a fresh direction was required. I’ve brought together hundreds of our people to engage with communities, partners and stakeholders to develop a comprehensive plan for change. Fire will still be at the core of what we do, but it now makes up an ever-decreasing amount of our workload.”

Fast facts:

Two lessons in leadership
“One lesson I learned from my mother is that you have two ears and one mouth: use them in the proportion that they were given to you. The other is something I learned from the military. As a leader, I need to remember not to get so far out in front of my people that I get mistaken for the enemy.”

Paul says it’s a matter of adapting to changing communities, as FRNSW has done for the past 100 years. “We’re going to build on our core competency: the rapid availability of our highly trained professionals across an ever-increasing range of emergencies. We deal with anything from house fires, motor vehicle accidents, humanitarian disasters and hazardous
material incidents, to delivering education and training within the community.”

Always preparing for a fire-safe future, Paul has set an ambitious plan in motion. “While it may be ambitious, it’s also common sense. By listening to those on the frontline and in the community, we are further developing our service capabilities to ensure our workforce is supported and aligned,” he says.

“Coming from paramilitary origins, our industry has always relied on ‘tight teams’ for effectiveness. To mobilise people and resources effectively, our leaders need to make quick, strategic decisions based on very little available information and infinite variables. I tell my team that we don’t need a 100% solution – 80% is a good start. Waiting around often means we’ll lose our window of opportunity. When we arrive at an emergency, people expect things to get better, fast, so every day is game day.”

“I tell my team that we don’t need a 100% solution – 80% is a good start. Waiting around often means we’ll lose our window of opportunity.”

Underpinning all of this is Paul’s goal of creating a more inclusive work environment. “We’re moving away from a mono-culture of predominantly white males – and I say this recognising that I’m one of them. We’re an organisation that relies on our ability to interact with our community and, to reflect that, we have to be more diverse. One of my staff members quite aptly described us as being in our ‘awkward teenage years’ on this journey, and she is right – we have some growing up to do.”

Although the job demands a lot, Paul is motivated by his purpose. “There’s no greater calling than that of service to the people. Even though nobody really wants to see us, they know that when they need us, we’ll be there. We have built a highly respected organisation on the passion and dedication of our people and we could never build a successful future without them,” he says. “For me, it’s not just about staff loving their job – and most firefighters will tell you they do – I want them to be able to say they love their organisation.”