Leading WA’s emergency services

 By Jane Garcia

Creating a climate of respect for people and what an organisation wants to deliver has been the key to a successful public sector career, according to Jo Harrison-Ward.

The former executive director of the WA Police recently became chief executive officer of the Fire and Emergency Services Authority of WA (FESA), becoming the first woman to lead the organisation since it replaced the Fire Board and Bush Fire Board.

Ms Harrison-Ward has worked in emergency services sector for 13 years and she is enthusiastic about moving FESA to the next level.

“It’s a relatively new organisation, it’s only been around since 1999,” she says.

“We’ve been through the ‘storming and forming’ side of things and I think now it’s a matter of consolidating what are the next things we need to do to keep on improving our service.

“We’re currently looking at the structure: we’ve outgrown our structure in terms of being able to provide the level of support that we need to put in place for the operational staff and volunteers.”

Communication is a key priority for the new CEO, from enhanced information sharing with volunteers, industry and local government, to improving community engagement and forming strong structures and good internal dialogue for the authority.

In 2004 Ms Harrison-Ward was awarded a Churchill Fellowship which allowed her to explore the issue of engaging the community in emergency management. She says in the past, all emergency response agencies had a tendency to go in, take total control of an emergency and dictate to communities what they would do. However, the approach now is moving more towards the lines of a community development approach.

“It’s looking at building the capacity and capability of communities in terms of all the all hazards approach to emergency management,” she says.

“Engaging the community, getting them involved where they’re prepared to give up their time and really commit to looking at identifying what the hazards are in the community, how they can mitigate those risks and where you can’t get rid of the risk, to make sure you have a comprehensive response plan involving all of the agencies – public and private – to deal with those emergencies and the recover from them.

“In Western Australia particularly where we have communities that can be isolated for 24 to 48 hours before they get the resources that would come in from another area, they have to be self-sufficient.”

Ms Harrison-Ward believes people need to take opportunities when they arise in the public service and back their abilities and potential to learn. She says staying true to her principles and value has helped her career success in fields traditionally seen as male-dominated.

“You’ve got to have really strong communication with your staff. You find that if you’re showing where you can have strategic value to any project or any vision then you do get offered the opportunities [for career progression],” she says.

“I’ve never been an advocate of all male or all female committees or organisations; men and women think and make decisions in very different ways. What I enjoy about having the diversity around me is where you have well balanced teams is you get that complement of different points of view to give you the information you need to make effective decisions.”

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