CFA stalwart receives firefighting's highest honour

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William (Bill) Johnstone AFSM would be considered one of the most experienced and insightful leaders in emergency services.


Following an extensive 46-year fire service career, Bill has been recognised for his exceptional contribution with an Australian Fire Service Medal in the 2024 Australia Day Honours.

“I’m very humbled by this honour. When I got the phone call to advise that I was being considered I almost hung up on the person,” Bill said.

“To think that the people around you think you are worthy of such an award and recognition is quite special. I’m just really chuffed to have even considered for it.”

Starting out as a volunteer at Gisborne fire brigade as a junior in 1977, Bill progressed through the senior volunteer ranks over a 23-year period. He has maintained his training and responds to emergencies when required.

“It's a privilege to do what we do with the volunteers, and the community in general, and I've just been lucky enough to turn a journey, that I started a very long time ago, into a really rewarding and interesting career,” Bill said.

Bill reflects fondly on his firefighting career with the Australian Aviation Rescue Fire Fighting Service (ARFFS). He started with ARFFS in 1986 as a labourer at the training college at Melbourne Airport, and served at Avalon, Tullamarine, Hobart and Cairns throughout his service. It was here that he proved his exceptional empathy and operational experience in the well-known Hinchinbrook Island rock rescue on the evening of 9 April 1997, where a rock climber was trapped under a large boulder for 40 hours.

“It was a really challenging thing, and although a long time ago, it still resonates with me now,” Bill said.

Going on to join CFA’s career ranks in 2000, Bill worked extensively in operational management across Victoria. The Loddon Mallee region became his home for a considerable period, undertaking various roles as operations officer and manager.

Now as Regional Commander, he is a highly regarded senior figure in CFA and broader community. He has a passion and enthusiasm for the progression of the fire services in Victoria and forging strong relationships across the broader emergency services sector.

The development and on-going success of using a helicopter for firefighting in Mallee crops and the value of Pre-Determined Dispatch (PDD) was proven under Bill’s foresight and direction and is perhaps one of his proudest achievements.

“Getting aviation into the Mallee was a big thing at the time, and I was fortunate to have some very committed people alongside me who were able to help overcome all of the hardships we encountered with that,” Bill said.

“That was back in 2011, and now here we are some 13 years later and we’re still doing it.”

The automatic response of water bombing aircraft when fire danger triggers are met has been instrumental in the suppression of fires and how CFA look after volunteers and crews on the ground. The entire state is now covered by similar capability to that developed and deployed by Bill in the Mallee area.

A standout of his service has been when he was appointed as the inaugural operations manager following the 2014 Hazelwood Open Cut Mine fire and the establishment of a newly formed CFA District 27 positioned for the high-risk environment of Victoria’s and interstate power supply. Described as a character-building experience over a three-year period, he developed the framework for what was a complex stakeholder engagement project which saw major change management for CFA.

His leadership skills and compassion for volunteers’ mental health and wellbeing has been utilised extensively throughout major floods, fires, and with the unfortunate and devastating Kerang train crash in 2007.

He has led CFA’s response through the Charlton 2010 floods, assisted in the February 2009 bushfires, and led the recent 2022/23 major floods across the north and northwest of Victoria as regional controller, transitioning the community to recovery over a three-month period.

“Going forward I’d like to see us put more of an emphasis on psychological wellbeing,” Bill said.

“Right now, we’ve got the people affected by floods up in here in the Loddon Mallee for the second or third time in recent years and it has been busy since that catastrophic summer in 2019.

“For the most part I have been fortunate to have had some of the best people believe in me and help me along my journey, and this recognition is as much theirs as mine; and I will be forever grateful for their dedication and support.”

Bill’s strong network consisting of volunteers, group leaders, community locals and CFA staff would describe him as a generational leader and mentor, who is firm yet fair, and who continues to provide guidance, empathy, and ideas to motivate and inspire others to do their best.

Bill’s distinguished management and influence in the emergency services sector is exceptional and has proven to be significant to the successful response and recovery of major areas of Victoria's communities.


Submitted by CFA Media