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Sue paves the way
In the mid-90s Sue Sheldrick became an accidental trail blazer for CFA women when she was elected as the first female captain of a CFA brigade.
*** Sue Sheldrick is a CFA volunteer and former captain, who is being profiled as part of a special series ‘Celebrating CFA Women’ in recognition of International Women’s Day on 8 March***
Sue held the top job at Killawarra Fire Brigade for six years, and says she certainly experienced some interesting, positive and unexpectedly negative reactions in the early days of her captaincy.
“Although I received a lot of support from my brigade and at CFA group level, there were several negative comments and reactions from people in the wider community – both men and women which really surprised me.
“There were comments along the lines of I should just leave the men alone to do it, and stereotypical comments such as if we have more women joining CFA will we have to introduce pink overalls and turnout gear?
“My appointment promoted a lot of strong reactions and there were even letters to the editor of the regional daily paper about it.
“At the time I was unanimously voted in by my team of brigade members – the brigade felt that I was the best person for the job, the most experienced and most qualified and we didn’t even suspect that there would be much about it that was controversial.”
Sue just kept doing what she was doing, leading by example, and eventually “the naysayers died away.”
Sue, who works full-time for SES in community education in North East Region, has now notched up over 30 years of service to CFA. It’s obvious her passion and commitment have not wavered since then. “I still really love it, the challenges and the opportunities still make it exciting, fun and rewarding.”
“I actually joined CFA on Ash Wednesday 1983. I had family who were hit very hard by the fires which prompted me to want to join to do my bit. But I since found out, you can’t join on the day of the fire!”
Sue is currently second lieutenant at Killawarra Fire Brigade, but she wears several hats – she's a strike team leader or sector commander during major incidents or campaign fires, and works as an accredited Level 3 public information officer during major fire, flood and multi-agency incidents.
“Above everything, I still love being a firefighter and putting the wet stuff on the red stuff and making a difference to the safety of our community.
“Something I’m really passionate about that works in well with my brigade community education role, is assisting with Fire Ready Victoria meetings and conducting the personalised Property Assessment Visit Service (or PAVS) for high-risk properties.
“I think it’s a big step forward that we’re moving away from the traditional style of community meetings to a targeted and very specific interaction with high-risk residents.”
On the evolving role of women in CFA Sue says, “CFA is still a male-dominated organisation – but I think the women that it does attract have a great passion and inner strength about them.
“Over the past 20 years I’ve seen the journey with more women stepping up into captain and other operational roles. These roles were traditionally held by men but now they are held by the most capable person irrespective of gender.
“It’s no longer a novelty or exception to see a female captain in both the volunteer or career firefighter pathways.”
Some advice for women who are thinking about joining CFA:
“Whether you’re on the front-line at the end of the hose or the equally important support roles, everyone’s contribution is invaluable.
“We couldn’t do what we do if there weren’t people filling the myriad of those behind-the-scenes roles. Mentoring, supporting new members, is now also so important in developing and supporting people while they learn CFA’s knowledge, skills and values.”
Sue believes CFA needs to continue to profile both men and women as equal partners who respect differences, team players for the variety of roles now available in the organisation to continue to improve rates of female recruitment and retention.
“I think CFA can benefit from greater female representation as women often can have different perspectives and life experiences that can benefit situations that require strategic thinking and decisive action.
“Volunteers like myself give their 100% best and work as an effective team for the safety of themselves and our community.”
If there are great women in your brigade you’d like to recognise this Women’s Day, we’d love to hear about them in the posts section below this story. Read more stories and watch a video from last year’s Celebrating CFA Women series here.
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