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Pinellas County
Four female chiefs discuss leadership
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Photo by ALEXANDRA LUNDAHL
From left, Pinellas Park Police Chief Dorene Thomas, Clearwater Police Deputy Chief Sandra Wilson, Seminole Fire Chief Heather Burford and Largo Fire Chief Shelby Willis.
SEMINOLE – Within the last year, the cities of both Largo and Seminole hired women to run their fire departments. Largo Chief Shelby Willis, who was the first in her position, contended that her promotion in a city that has as many female directors as male directors wasn’t the glass-ceiling-shattering event it might have seemed.

“The rest of the world made the big deal out it. We didn’t,” she said.

Chief Heather Burford, who left a fire chief position in Connecticut to accept Seminole’s top firefighter job in January, agreed.

“I think about gender less than the rest of the world does. It just has never mattered to me,” she said.

Still, Pinellas County currently has more women running the stereotypically-male-

dominated fields of police and fire than it ever has. Pinellas Park police Chief Dorene Thomas started her career as a meter maid, back in the 1970s, well before the job title changed to the now-politically-correct “parking enforcement officer.” All she wanted to be was a paid police officer. And she was Pinellas Park’s first female officer in 1980, and the first in every role she held as she rose through the ranks until becoming chief in 2000.

“It was no doubt challenging, absolutely,” she said. “I had really a good bunch of folks that I worked with at the time. To me personally, I’ve always tried to be non-gender specific in dealing with things.”

Police Deputy Chief Sandra Wilson, who also was first to her position in Clearwater when she was hired in 2010, summed up the sentiments of the other three women.

“I figured I got there because of the merits and the things I’ve done, not because of my gender,” she said. “That’s just the added luxury that they get, that I am a female.”

Thomas, Burford and Willis – invited along with Wilson to Tampa Bay Newspapers’ offices for a discussion about leadership, public safety and what it means to be a woman in their respective roles – laughed and nodded in approval.

“Added luxury,” Willis quoted, chuckling. “I’m so stealing that.”

Leading their departments

Thomas, who will retire at some point next year, is quickest to bring up the concept of leaving a legacy behind as a leader.

“Whatever we’ve done, it still should stand long after I’m gone. It’s always been a team effort,” she said. “It’s just never been about (me.) It’s been about ours, our department. I think that’s the legacy of being the No. 1 police agency in the world.”

Wilson didn’t look up, but for the second time silently corrected Thomas with two fingers to indicate Pinellas Park’s placement behind Clearwater Police Department. The new fire chiefs, who had just met Wilson and Thomas, laughed at the friendly rivalry between the two.

“We’re going to have to separate them,” Willis said.

All four women are concerned with leaving their departments better off than when they found them. They pointed to integrity as the most important characteristic of a good leader.

“I think we probably all can agree that we live our lives in fishbowls, and I’m proud to say that there’s nothing I do behind closed doors that I wouldn’t do elsewhere,” Burford said.

Wilson said she encouraged a high level of ethics with those whom she worked, often telling her subordinates, “If you do something wrong, just tell me.”

“I think, especially in public safety arena, integrity has to be paramount,” she said. “We’re arresting people, speaking to people, telling people what they should or shouldn’t do.”

That leaves no place to be a “do as I say, not as I do” type of leader, Wilson said.

Being a chief of a fire department means developing a cohesive team that will work together in adverse conditions and in times of crisis, whether they be domestic, foreign or economic, Willis explained.

“There’s the obvious: the health and safety and well-being of your personnel that has to come first. And then the mission of organization has to follow closely behind that,” she said.

Burford said the “huge responsibility” can weigh heavy during quiet, private moments.

“There are a lot of people counting on us at their worst times, and we need to be our best at their worst times,” she said.

But the role of leadership encompasses something more.

“We’ve probably all gotten to these positions, not because we’re good at pumping apparatus or shooting at a range. It’s beyond that,” she said. “It’s really understanding and leading people … understanding what their needs are and what that means to the organization and how we serve our customers.”

Battling gender stereotypes

While the women contend that they didn’t meet direct opposition as they rose to leadership roles, they don’t think their fields have completely reached gender equality.

“We haven’t arrived. We’re getting there,” Wilson said.

The lack of female executives in public safety can’t be all attributed to a glass ceiling, Thomas said. Some leave to become entrepreneurs, a “rising field for female leaders,” and some because of the balance they wish to have with family, she said. Along with retention, sometimes agencies, especially smaller ones, don’t encourage recruitment of a diverse workforce as much as is needed.

Wilson said the lack of gender equality is prevalent in all fields, not just public safety. When she first became a supervisor at the Florida

Department of Law Enforcement, a female superior told Wilson that she would have to work “110 percent above the men.”

“I thought, ‘Wow, first day out and I’m already being told that my level of commitment has to be greater than my male counterpart.’ That’s how I came into the ranks in law enforcement was with that mandate,” she said.

Willis said she hasn’t been treated any differently by other firefighters, but some of the residents she serves are still shocked that a petite blonde is running their fire department. Once a man came in and asked, “to speak to the little girl who just got promoted,” she said.

“My secretary politely told him I wasn’t available. And thankfully, I wasn’t available,” Willis said with a dangerous edge to her voice.

People have questioned her rank a couple of times since she was hired six months ago: ‘You’re ...? Really? For the whole city?’”

“Yep,” she said she tells them. “Absolutely. They let me do it every day.”

Burford and Thomas said they’ve both had callers insist they talk with the chief, having assumed that they hadn’t reached the top yet when a female voice answered the phone.

“You do have a sense of humor about it, because it is constant,” Burford said. “It’s just the way it is, but each person you run into, you have a chance to educate and kind of turn that around.”

Wilson nodded, “Turn it into a learning opportunity.”

“With a smile,” Burford said sardonically.

Familial concerns

One of the luxuries Wilson said she offers her department is a more nurturing style of leadership. She said she teases Chief Anthony Holloway that when the department does well, they’re his kids, but they’re hers when they screw up.

“We’re like moms,” she said. “We lead with a strong arm, but yet at the same time, we have that different, softer heart of compassion.”

Wilson said she leads “by walking around,” and asking those in her department about their family, kids and weekends.

“They weren’t used to that in Clearwater. So I had to get them to a culture (where) when I come in, it’s really not a bad thing,” she said. “That’s not to say that a man wouldn’t do that, but it’s just more natural for us.”

Burford said as a brand new chief, new to the area, she has focused hard on listening and catching up on generations of history in Seminole. But she thinks being a woman makes her more approachable from the start.

“What I’m finding already in this organization is that people are willing to open up pretty quickly,” she said.

Willis said that it’s likely because it’s more accepted that a woman leader is more nurturing.

“I think some of my male counterparts are probably more empathetic than I am, but they’re sure not going to let anybody know that,” she said. “If somebody’s going to cry, they cry to the female chief.”

“Who knew you needed Kleenex in the chief’s office?” Burford mused.

Willis echoed Wilson’s style of hands-on leadership.

“I tell all the new firefighters when they get hired, ‘I’m going to be in your business, because I care about you, and we’re a family,’” she said. “ I think that’s something that women do differently from men.”

Thomas said she sees the departmental culture changing altogether as the millennial generation, even its male members, expect a family-focused approach to leadership. Expectations at work and one’s family life used to come with an accepted separation, driven by a male-dominated workforce.

“I think you’re seeing that gap closing,” she said, explaining that fighting for a work-family balance is more of an excepted norm. “Everybody else is doing the same thing.”

Thomas and her husband James have been married for 32 years. They have four children and six grandchildren.

Willis, married for 21 years, recently began battling the balance between parenting and leading. Her husband Victor also works full time, but ends up spending more time with their 6-year-old son Brody.

“It’s very, very hard for me,” she said. “There are days when I feel like the worst parent in the world because Dad is taking care of the child when Mom should be, at least in my eyes.”

But Victor loves being a dad, she said. And she tries to make up the time on the weekends and by going into work late one day a week to cook Brody breakfast and drive him to school.

Wilson understands the constant struggle. Her son Darrel, whom she adopted, turned 5 this month. Sometimes her life feels consumed in “getting him from point A to point B” in between a “multiplicity of meetings.” She had a large support system in Orlando that she misses and is still trying to reestablish in Clearwater, through church and friends.

It doesn’t help that chiefs are attached to their phones, on call 24-7.

“Some days when I get home, Mom is not feeling like trying to play. But the 5-year-old doesn’t understand that. So you make the sacrifices that you have to make until 8:30, when it’s bed time!” she said with the triumph of that hour. “And then you do flop.”

Burford said she agreed that though the term is overused, balance is important. For her, that means making sure she can be there for her aging parents, who recently moved from New England to Florida.

“It’s making sure I take care of myself, because then I can be better for the organization. And usually that is with my family,” she said.

Future challenges

While the millennial generation offers relational perks, keeping up with their technological advances has proved police departments’ biggest challenge, Thomas and Wilson both agreed.

“As an agency, we’re constantly trying to find technological advances that will keep us on pace with the type of crimes that are coming in,” Wilson said. “Tools that we have to find room (for) in our budget.”

All departments are struggling with diminishing revenue streams, while maintaining a level of service their residents expect.

“It’s constantly a challenge to meet that, budget cut after budget cut,” Willis said.

Strategically planning for the future, in collaboration with her team, is Willis’ favorite part of the job. And the fire profession is constantly changing.

“The first tanker truck rolls over, and suddenly we’re responding to hazmat calls,” Burford explained. “Almost every decade there is something that has been added to our plate to do. Which is wonderful. We’re the kind of people that say, ‘Yeah, we’ll take it on.’

“But we’ve not necessarily kept up on the funding.”

Encouraging the next generation

Still, the challenge makes it an interesting time, Burford said. When she talks to schoolchildren, her goal is to convey the potential of the firefighting career field to those who like to take care of people, who are “action-oriented” and enjoy challenges and diverse work, she said.

“It’s not for everybody, obviously. But it’s for more than people think,” she explained.

Little girls especially aren’t often presented with the option.

“It’s not the kind of career that most little girls say they want to get into,” said Burford, who herself started out in the pharmaceutical industry with only a misplaced desire to fight forest fires … in her home state of Connecticut.

Willis said she grew up as “the princess” in her family, an only child whose father encouraged her to do anything. But she didn’t consider becoming a firefighter until a specific encounter piqued her interest. Even today, gender stereotypes are alive and well, unfortunate for the next generation of female cops and firefighters.

“I think they’re completely going to face the same challenges we do,” Willis said.

Thomas agreed. Her father didn’t discourage her when she told him she wanted to be a motorcycle racer. But she said she’s astonished when she speaks at schools during the Great American Teach-in and children still expect the chief to be male, “6 feet tall, with brown hair and a mustache.”

“We need to get them earlier,” she said.
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