In the middle of the State Memorial Service for Bushfire Victims, between Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons and before Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Acting Rural Fire Service Senior Chaplain and Uniting Church Minister, Rev. Nicholas (Nich) Cole strode to the podium. He placed his notes quickly in front of the microphone and, without a noticeable breath, began with confidence in the burning media spotlight. His practiced calm leadership was palpable, despite the international and national audience listening for words of comfort as he delivered the Emergency Service prayer.

He introduced the prayer with acknowledgements, “What an honour it is to serve as a chaplain to so many. But we never expect it to come to this point.”

“To all the emergency services workers who have served in the past month across all of the different services, you’ve brought so much honour to your own services and you have served your country so well,” he said.

“Sadly, we lost three of our own. We lost three angels from the sky, and we’ve also lost many other loved ones. And our sadness is very rich today,” he said.

A few days after the memorial, Nich was still trying to recover from the pace of the lead up to the event. I spoke with him about being an RFS Chaplain and the little known, invaluable quality he displayed in front of a worldwide audience – calm leadership.

Another member of the crew

Nich Cole has been with the RFS for almost 20 years. He is a qualified firefighter, driving trucks and donning the breathing apparatus with the best of them. As a Chaplain, he admits it helps to be another member of the crew when working amongst firefighters and emergency services.

“More so now than ever before, the Emergency Services are like one family,” Nich says. “And while we are RFS Chaplains deployed to help RFS people, and the Police and other services have their own Chaplains, on the ground we help anyone in need.”

With the length of the bushfire season, and the size of the fires in each region, it’s easy to imagine how sustaining the workforce could be a major challenge for RFS and their Chaplains on the front line each day.  

How did RFS manage logistics during the Black Summer? There is a book in the answer, I suspect, but I ask Nich anyway. He says there are currently 25 RFS volunteer Chaplains and two full-time. “Chaplains are responsible for 72,000 members of RFS and their families during any season. This season, thousands of RFS workers were in action at any time.”

RFS workers are routinely exposed to life threatening situations. This year RFS lives were lost and dozens of firefighters lost their own homes.

During the season, Disaster Recovery Chaplains Network (DRCN) volunteers were in action in evacuation centres and points of disaster recovery throughout the state. From September to mid-January DRCN provided approximately 5000 hours of service to the community.

For those who might be interested to join as a volunteer Chaplain, Stephen Robinson, from the DRCN says the roles of RFS Chaplains and Chaplains in the DRCN are different. “Volunteers of the DRCN are tasked to take care of evacuees within a community that can be nowhere near their own community.  RFS Chaplains, by contrast, are permanently a part of the RFS family, and care for those affected at any time,” Stephen said.

Nich Cole has seen more than just bushfires disasters during his time with RFS. I asked what advice he would give to others in the service. “In my early years, I remember attending a major accident. Two young RFS workers were with the crew. Chaplaincy engagement is often on the fly. In this case, I tried to prevent them from witnessing an horrific and confronting scene. I lost the battle. But, as soon as the location was returned to its original condition, I went back with them and asked, ‘what can you see now?’ We talked about how the livestock, bush and wildlife had returned to their life’s rituals and how important it was for us to do the same. I reminded them that this was not their tragedy. A couple of weeks later I spoke with them again and was pleased to see that life had moved on for them.”

For Nich, doing a ‘reset’, is a good early step for emergency service workers. “Before the counselors arrive, Chaplains are often at the scene. They provide stillness and peace – calm leadership when things feel chaotic.” As I listen, I wonder if calm leadership means acceptance and acknowledgement during an absence of order, when life itself feels intangible, during the first hours or days of a tragedy.

A ministry built on trust

During the memorial service as families of victims lit candles to commemorate lives lost, Nich Cole stood silently, calmly leading, offering a hand as needed.

“I often hear people sigh when the Chaplain arrives, even among those who are not religious or spiritual. In those moments, of great loss, calm leadership can help navigate. It is quiet, but often, it’s silent,” he said.

Chaplaincy ministry is based on well-earned trust. “With any community it can take two years or more to get to know them, from the youth to the local Member of Parliament. During that time, we learn respect for every member of the community.”

“With my RFS colleagues, it is invaluable for them to talk to someone who knows what they have been through. My humour also helps. Once they get to know me, I see them relax a little. But don’t underestimate mateship among the RFS workers and between emergency services. That familiarity really helps,” said Nich.

During the State Memorial Service, Nich called this “a harsh season”. After, he spoke with a US Airman representing Captain Ian McBeth, first officer Paul Clyde Hudson, and flight engineer Rick DeMorgan Jr who were on board the C-130 Hercules that went down in service over the Snowy Monaro region. He asked Nich what it was like fighting fires of the ferocity witnessed this season. Nich was struck by the similarities in the service role. “It’s a battleground. And we need to honour those who fought this battle”, he said to the Airman. “Let’s hope this is the only battle of our lives, and we don’t, one day, meet during war between nations.”

Before he read the prayer at the State Memorial Service, Nich finished his reflection with words of hope, “May the tears of our nation’s hearts lift and sustain you all….[and] may our love carry you into the years and months ahead.”

Rev. Cole ended his prayers with a simple blessing, a reminder of the iconic Australian bond that continues to hold our communities together – mateship.  “Bless our work, our conversations and the great comradery that we share,” he said.

Rev. Simon Hansford, Moderator for NSW and ACT is grateful for the service Chaplains provide. “I have said many times that the Gospel places us at the heart of our community, at the centre of people’s lives, serving their needs, addressing their fears and building hope.”

“Nowhere is this more apparent than with the ministry of our Emergency Services and Disaster Recovery Chaplains, like Nich and Stephen. We give thanks to God continually for their ministry in the RFS, DRCN and all Emergency Services,” he said.

Steph O’Connell

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