Joanne Greenfield is the first female Assistant Commissioner in the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services (QFES). Her varied background gives her a range of skills to bring to the job, and as a values-led organisation going through change, they needed the best on board. We talked to her about the breadth of opportunities within QFES and how transferrable skills could serve you well in a role there.
Changing the world one community at a time
Joanne is not only the first female appointment to her rank, but she’s also a non-firefighter – historically most Assistant Commissioners come up within frontline fire services. Her appointment supports QFES’s approach to strengthen diversity of thinking and experience in its leadership team.
Joanne started one month before the 2019 bushfire season started. That went from July 2019 until Jan 2020 and then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“It was certainly a steep learning curve! But that experience helped me understand the organization, how it operates and how it thinks. It’s been consistently high tempo operations and consistently quite complex. I’ve been struck by how flexible and adaptable the organization is.”
QFES also support Surf Life Saving, the PCYC cadets and two volunteer marine rescue groups. Joanne led the Blue Water Review, which provided advice on the future of marine rescue services in Queensland and is now leading the program of work to develop an integrated Queensland marine rescue service.
In the marine rescue sector there are over 3,500 volunteers, and Joanne is impressed by the community’s desire to support each other.
“It’s been a huge privilege. One of the things that attracted me to the role is the volunteer services and the amazing things Queensland communities do to support each other. Everyday heroes, people from the community step up to help every time there’s a disaster and the opportunity to work with them has been amazing. We’ve got volunteers at every point in the disaster cycle keeping Queenslanders safe.”
QFES know people from all backgrounds bring something different to the organization, and they have hugely diverse opportunities. There are frontline services such as land search, firefighting, flood rescue, road crash rescue. The State Emergency Service, the Rural Fire Service, the Fire and Rescue Service and our disaster management teams have very specialized skills.
There are also roles in corporate services. There are many unsung heroes at QFES who do a brilliant job at supporting the frontline workers. The teams range from fleet management, procurement, mechanics, Warnings (warnings send weather and fire warnings to the public) to the watch desk who have eyes and ears across the state.
The diversity of the jobs allows for a number of different routes into the organization. Some people join through formal training as a firefighter, there is a public service team with specialist corporate skills, and a range of volunteer options.
“There are multiple avenues which opens it up to people with all different backgrounds. Some of the volunteers might be doctors in the daytime and then come and do vertical rescue with the SES on the weekend. They might be judges or painters and decorators or engineers in their full-time job. And they come and volunteer in an emergency disaster response event.”
Joanne’s own background is hugely varied and she brings that diversity of experience with her into the role. She began her career as a nurse in the UK’s National Health Service, then became Executive Director of Emergency Services for a big London hospital. She joined the United Nations in Emergency Management and Humanitarian Assistance, spending time moving from one disaster to another, while also putting in work to improve the overall system.
“I did a lot in that space, working initially FIFO from London and then moved to Afghanistan. I did the A to Z, from there to Zimbabwe, and now I’m back at A in Australia.”
How to build a career you care about
Joanne identified three common threads that weave through her career no matter her job or sector:
- Emergency or humanitarian services to support communities to be safe and better prepared for disasters.
- Change, improvement and reform work.
- Working with multidisciplinary teams and bringing together different services.
She built her transferable skills by following those common threads.
To others considering how to create a meaningful career and build their transferable skills when looking at roles outside their industry, she suggests:
- Know your values. “I’ve always been driven by my value of supporting communities in need. Know the values in yourself that drive you and that helps you build those common threads through your career.”
- Look beyond yourself. “Earlier in my career I strived really hard to be the best clinician. I learned going overseas that it wasn’t about me; it was about the system I worked in and how I could strengthen that to have the biggest impact.”
- Value diversity. “Recognizing how important multidisciplinary teams are and respecting what everyone brings to it – everyone brings something to the table.”
- Take sideways steps. “I’ve moved sideways a few times and gained a depth of experience from doing something unexpected, not just following the career trajectory. Diverging and doing different things is good!”
Women in QFES
“Traditionally, these frontline roles have been more male-dominated. But the world has changed, and QFES has changed, so we’re putting lots of effort into shifting our diversity.”
QFES has some targeted recruitment approaches in place to attract the best people. QFES is well-connected to the communities they operate in, which helps them attract the people they serve. They are also paying attention to job descriptions to ensure they’re inclusive.
The volunteer model is changing to be more flexible, and in the paid positions, lessons from COVID fast-tracked changes they knew they needed to make, such as flexible work options.
“It was a wakeup call, because there was this notion that you couldn’t work from home in emergency services. But we can bring more flexibility to shifts and a lot of roles can function from home.”
“We need more women! We’re working hard on our gender balance which is why we actively need good female leaders and operators. You will always feel challenged, but you’re working on something worthwhile and contributing to the greater good.”
QFES also supports the PCYC youth program, and their emergency services cadet program is one way they attract First Nations people for recruitment.
“The two big values are integrity and respect, and they come through every day in our operations, whether an SES member is on the roof putting a tarp on, to if we’re sitting in a board meeting deciding strategic direction.”
“The culture is supportive, positive, challenging because of the nature of the work, and progressive. We are able to flex and adapt, so QFES is open to new ideas.”