Public face of Jellat Jellat RFS recognised

Robbie Thatcher who has been awarded the Australian Fire Service Medal in the Queen's birthday honours list.
Robbie Thatcher who has been awarded the Australian Fire Service Medal in the Queen's birthday honours list.

He has been the backbone of the Jellat Jellat Rural Fire Service for the past 19 years in his roles of either captain, president or vice-president. However Robert (Robbie) Thatcher's involvement with the brigade spans 61 years and he remains as enthusiastic and committed to the the RFS as he was on the day he joined in 1958.

He has never allowed anything to stand in the way of his service to the RFS and local people whose homes, sheds and paddocks he has helped defend against fire.

Only last year at age 82, Robbie was helping to fight the Tathra bushfires.

"On that day we had a big fire at Kerrisons Lane. It started around midday and I was involved and couldn't help at Tathra because we didn't get away until about 8pm," Robbie said.

"It (the Kerrisons Lane fire) would have wiped out Bournda. It started with a power line coming down. There was one home that was really lucky, it had green lawn around it and the fire crept around it. We managed to save another house. The boys got onto that real quick but it was dealing with the smouldering stumps afterwards, that was where the time was taken up," Robbie explained.

He went to Tathra on day three of the fire to help "mop up" smouldering stumps.

"I left here at noon and it was after 8pm when we knocked off."

Despite the numbers of fires he has seen, Robbie admitted that he had been deeply affected by the extent of the devastation at Tathra.

"It knocked me about a bit seeing all those houses burnt and thinking about the people who lived in them," Robbie admitted.

"Living on my own, well if I had someone to talk to it might be different. That fire was so quick but the police did a terrific job getting everyone out," he said.

He has led the brigade through major reform, focusing on developing the brigade into the modern professional organisation that exists today, while ensuring the values, and lessons of the past are passed down to new members.

The citation for Robbie Thatcher

Robbie was born in Taree where his father leased a farm but the family decided to move to Tumbarumba, then Wagga Wagga before arriving at Bega when Robbie was 15.

Although he didn't join the RFS until he was 22 he was involved well before.

"In those days if a fire started you just went and helped. There were times when you were milking the cows and fire started and you just had to go and then come back and finish milking afterwards."

Back then fire fighting equipment could be rudimentary.

"We used hessian bags soaked in water and leather fire beaters and you'd just go and bash the fire down with it," Robbie said.

"We were called out to a lot of fires but they weren't as fierce as they are today. The bush was logged a lot more and there were more fire trails and less houses," he said.

"I remember a fire near Kerrisons Lane, the town brigade ran out of hose and it got away from them and we were called. There was a change of wind and it gave us the chance to put it out."

"I went to a lot of fires locally including Mumbulla Mountain and around Cobargo," he said.

It was a family affair with Robbie's brothers also members of the RFS. His brother Ken was the deputy captain from 1970-84. Robbie took over as deputy and then became captain in 2000 for 11 years. He was president for 15 years and even now continues his active role as one of two fire permit officers for the area. His knowledge of the area and of fire behaviour is invaluable when deciding whether burn offs should go ahead.

He is full of praise for the crew.

The achievements of the Jellat brigade over the past 60 years, particularly during the past 19 years, are in no small way due to Mr Thatcher's leadership and his dedication to the safety of the community.

The citation for Robbie Thatcher

"A good crew makes the brigade, the captain's only there to advise. When I was captain we had a good crew and we've still got a good team."

There are about 18 members currently but he admits there were times when he was battling to keep it going, something that was recognised in the citation for his award.

"He has been instrumental in the mentoring of all members of the brigade and in times when membership numbers are low, he goes above and beyond to recruit members who have the right skills, the right attitude, and fit in with the values and culture of the NSW Rural Fire Service," the citation stated.

"He has led the brigade through major reform, focusing on developing the brigade into the modern professional organisation that exists today, while ensuring the values, and lessons of the past are passed down to new members," the citation adds.

His enthusiasm is evident; he says it's about enjoying being involved with the RFS, liking the company of the team and joining together for training once a month.

"You get together and you talk about things. I can remember when I was captain one bloke said I was not aggressive enough but I said if you treat the members right they'll appreciate you and you can get things done," Robbie said.

As the citation says he is the public face of the Jellat brigade, taking all opportunities to be involved in community engagement and awareness activities such as the Get Ready Weekend, Australia Day and Anzac Day activities. He is instrumental in all fundraising activities undertaken and his knowledge of the community, and his reputation within it, ensures that the brigade maintains the ability to purchase new equipment and maintain the facilities.

"The achievements of the Jellat brigade over the past 60 years, particularly during the past 19 years, are in no small way due to Mr Thatcher's leadership and his dedication to the safety of the community," the citation adds.

Robbie Thatcher with some of his previous medals including the NSW RFS Award, long service medals, the National Medal 4th Clasp and the Rotary Club of Bega Service in Action Award 2009 for 'Service Above Self'.

Robbie Thatcher with some of his previous medals including the NSW RFS Award, long service medals, the National Medal 4th Clasp and the Rotary Club of Bega Service in Action Award 2009 for 'Service Above Self'.

As for Robbie, he is still wondering who dobbed him in.

When the Governor General's letter arrived, Robbie was surprised.

"I said what's this all about, as I opened it. Who did this to me? I didn't have a clue who put me in - it was a real surprise," he said.

Like so many volunteers, Robbie doesn't just give his time to one organisation.

He helps to run and manage the Uniting Church Op Shop at Tathra and over the years has been involved with Meals on Wheels. For the last 19 years he has collected for the Salvos Red Shield Appeal, including this most recent appeal and in between he still manages some part-time work on a farm and regular visits to his brother Ken at Hillgrove House Nursing Home.

The strength of Jellet brigade today is a testament to Robbie's enthusiasm and commitment to the RFS.

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