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The Director-General – The Less Known Chief Executive of the Fire Brigade from 1990-1994

To understand who the Director-General is, it is worthwhile taking a trip back in time to see how the NSW Fire Brigades (NSWFB; now Fire and Rescue NSW, FRNSW) operated in the past.

In 1884 the Fire Brigades Act was first inaugurated which saw the volunteer and insurance brigades, which had provided fire protection across metropolitan Sydney, join under a new singular entity. This new entity was to be administered and managed by a Fire Brigades Board which was made up of six members, one member elected by the City of Sydney Council, one member from a suburban municipal council, two representatives from insurance companies, one representative from the volunteer companies, and the sixth member being the chairman who was appointed by the Governor of NSW. In turn, this new organisation would be funded via three key areas in equal parts, from the insurance companies, the municipal councils, and the state treasury.

Metropolitan Fire Brigades Board in Headquarters yard, 1890s with Shand Mason #18 steamer and small manual pump [Museum of Fire Collection]

Contrary to the Fire Brigades Act’s intention to serve only Metropolitan Sydney, the wording was of such a vague nature that it saw to the legal creation of several regional fire brigade boards such as in Wollongong and Tamworth. These regional fire brigade boards were often met with much strife in terms of funding as the insurance companies, which contributed to one third of the funding of the Fire Brigades Board in Sydney, did not believe they were charged with having to fund all of the regional centres as well. Such troubles were one reason which contributed to the amendment of the Fire Brigades Act in 1909 and resulted in the unification of all the fire brigades across NSW to be managed under the authority of a new singular body, that being the Board of Fire Commissioners of NSW, a body which consisted of five members. The Board of Fire Commissioners of NSW would ultimately undergo several changes from 1910 to 1989 which effectively saw the biggest change yet.

In 1989 the government declared, after passing a new Fie Brigades Act, that the NSWFB would officially become a government department. This change brought the fire brigade into the same ranks as any other government department like the NSW Police. Such a change though meant that the funding stream for the brigade and its administration had to change. No longer was the fire brigade subject to multiple streams of funding from insurance companies, municipal councils, and the government, alternatively, it became one that was completely supported by the treasury and the taxpayer dollar. Thus, a Board of Fire Commissioners was no longer necessary, and the group of representatives shrunk down into a single role, known as the Director-General. While the Director-General role was created, the role of Chief Officer elevated in status becoming more involved in the administration of the NSWFB then it ever had before.

Portrait of Director-General Peter Rath [Museum of Fire Collection]

Peter Rath, who was the President of the Board of Fire Commissioners of NSW in 1989 was subsequently assented into the new role as Director-General, officially taking up the mantle in 1990. Mr. Rath would be the chief executive of the NSWFB, the highest rank and position within the organisation, and ran what was the NSW Fire Brigades Advisory Council along with supporting and working closely with the Chief Officer. This role, however, would be short lived only lasting four years as a consequence of Peter Rath’s retirement, and because of the Minister’s desire to change the NSWFB even further, in May 1994 the Minister for Police and Emergency Services Terry Griffiths implemented a new staff structure for the brigade. Since the brigade was now a government department, he wanted the emergency services under his portfolio to display uniformity amongst their ranks and staff structures so that members of the public would be able to easily identify important people from their title. It is because of this that the role of Director-General was dissolved, and its responsibilities became absorbed by the new chief executive role, that being the Commissioner. The first Acting Commissioner was Stan Hearn, who previously held the title of Chief Officer, and managed the brigade until the appointed of the first official Commissioner, Vice Admiral Ian MacDougall in June 1994. This new title of Commissioner enveloped the responsibilities of the Director-General and the Chief Officer into a singular position which is how the fire brigade continues to operate today.

A presentation dinner for the official send off for the Director-General Peter Rath, 29 April 1994 [Museum of Fire Collection]

Therefore, whilst the Director-General may be a less known figure of fire brigade history, the role plays an integral part in the transformation of governance that took place over time and shows just how the role of the Commissioner became to be how it is envisaged today.

-Blog by Curator, Ben Dickson


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