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Willing and able: 'turbocharging' the state's bushfire recovery effort

Adinoyi Suleiman zakari

Jan. 15, 2020

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The newly-appointed lead recovery co-ordinator for the state’s devastating bushfires, Mick Willing, says the NSW government has put him in the job to “turbocharge” the response to what has been an “unprecedented” event.
“This is totally out of the norm, what has happened”, he told the Herald in his first interview in the role. “It was clear that the existing structures and committees that were in place for recovery were [fundamentally] the right structures, but they needed to be super-charged, they needed to be turbocharged in terms of timeliness.”
Mr Willing’s appointment came hard on the heels of Prime Minister Scott Morrison announcing a compulsory call-out of 3000 army reservists to help with the bushfire response on January 4.
“A few days ago I didn’t dream of being where I am right now” Mr Willing said. “It’s a bit daunting, to be honest. But being given this challenge - and it really is a challenge to do what is assigned to me - the government needed someone used to dealing with the Australian Defence Force and used to fast-tracking operations around recovery.”
Mr Willing had experience working with the ADF in one of his former roles as head of the NSW police counter-terrorism unit.
He describes his immediate focus as “trying to pull from the bottom up what it is that [affected] communities need, and then trying to make sure that at every level we are able to meet those needs by cutting through red tape and putting resources on the ground, where they need to be”.
He has already formed a close working relationship with Brigadier Mick Garraway, who is in command of mobilised defence units.
He is also working with former Australian Federal Police commissioner Andrew Colvin, who’s been appointed head of the National Bushfire Recovery Agency.
Mr Willing describes Mr Colvin as “a personal friend and former mentor … so the connectivity and trust there is alive and well”.
This week he saw the bushfire devastation at first hand when he flew to Batemans Bay and Bega on Tuesday, accompanied by Emergency Services Minister David Elliott, NSW Police chief Mick Fuller, and Brigadier Garraway.
Mr Willing said he knew the region well, as it was his first local area command many years ago.
“As you flew over the top going into Bega you could see the fires still burning in the hills. This is a recovery action that is happening in the middle of what remains an active fire period, and the fear is still very real in the community about this,” he said.
Mr Willing was plucked from his role as an assistant NSW police commissioner to oversee the recovery and will return to that role when his mission is completed.
He said the duration and scale of the task ahead of him remained “ a bit unknown”, and describes the pace he is working at as “intense.” He has set up a taskforce, of “key people in government agencies at a high level to make things happen”.
Priorities had been making sure people had food, water, shelter, money and fuel.
The total number of people displaced in the state remains unclear but Mr Willing said that as of two days ago, more than 1000 were in emergency accommodation on the South Coast alone. “That number is coming down, which is good,” he said.
He would not comment on the sudden resignation of Feargus O’Connor, the former executive director of state emergency management, which almost immediately followed his own appointment.
Mr O'Connor has been rebadged the disaster recovery officer under Mr Willing’s leadership.
Mr Willing and his team are working out of Rural Fire Service headquarters at Olympic Park while they organise their premises. On Wednesday, his office for the day had been in the RFS library meeting room.
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