Katarina Carroll: bringing QFES into the 21st century

By David Donaldson

Friday October 9, 2015

Brought in to fix up an organisation found to be suffering from a culture of sexism, bullying and misconduct, Katarina Carroll has wasted no time making change happen at the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services.

She was initially appointed acting commissioner in December last year following a high-profile review led by former director-general of the Department of Communities Margaret Allison on sexual harassment and workplace bullying at QFES. To tackle these problems, the report made thirty recommendations on issues such as management of harassment and bullying allegations, recruitment practices, training, governance and leadership.

“Even though I was in an interim role, I made sure I owned that position and I actually started the implementation of the recommendations of the report,” she told The Mandarin.

Carroll, who recently won the Queensland Government and Academia Award at the 2015 Telstra Business Women’s Awards, said her move into QFES was initially a challenge for some. “I can understand why, I came from another organisation,” the former policewoman of 32 years observed.

“I’ve got to tell you it really is about relationships. My staff realised I am frontline orientated, I am operationally focused, I’m actually not too different in terms of the organisation I come from.”

As a leader, it helps to surround yourself with a good leadership team that understands the need for cultural change and accept that change doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, she thinks, it will probably take three to five years to really notice the change.

“I let them know it is a great organisation and we’ve got to work together. I think one of the things I learned along the way is you’ve got to be open, transparent and accountable, and be upfront about what the issues are and how we’re going to achieve them and that we’ve got to do this together,” she says.

And although there is plenty still to work on, Carroll argues the agency is “holistically quite healthy” at this point.

“We’ve done a recruiting review and we’re looking at who do we recruit for the future and how diversity fits into that, because we definitely do need a more diverse workforce. We’ve done a planning review, we’ve implemented sexual harassment officers, we’ve done code of conduct training, negative workplace behaviours training,” she explained.

“So it’s not just at the highest level, this transcends throughout the entire organisation. I’m actually very comfortable that we’ve done an extraordinary amount of work in a short timeframe, but we’ve got to ensure that that momentum continues and it continues constantly over the next couple of years.

Bringing four agencies into one

The other big reform program is making QFES work as one organisation.

QFES was created two years ago by an amalgamation of four agencies: Fire and Rescue, Rural Fire Service, State Emergency Service and Emergency Management Queensland.

The first time they all worked together was during Cyclone Marcia in February this year, “and whilst on the surface we did brilliantly” with the government and public largely pleased with the outcome, as a department “we still have a lot of work in terms of integrating our systems, our practices, how we do not just fire but how we do emergency services as well”, says Carroll.

“This is actually a bit of a cultural change for some aspects of the agency, so there’s a lot of work in the next couple of years ensuring that we deliver a an all hazards approach for the community of Queensland.”

As part of bedding down the changes, the department is in the process of combining some back office functions, as well as looking at training, command and control and coordination across agencies.

Making progress for women

When she started in policing in the 1980s, Katarina Carroll was one of only 4% of Queensland Police who were women. She thinks it helps her work reforming QFES that she was raised in an organisation with a similar background. But both are making progress.

“Policing has made amazing advances in that area in the last 20-30 years, where now women sit at close to 30%,” she says. “Having said that though, very very few women in policing are in the senior executive level. That’s still very low in terms of percentages.”

She is in the “quite rare” position of also having three senior women at the rank of commissioned officer. In the last year, the recruiting has been around 15-20% women, though she is quick to add that “there will be no lowering of standards for women to become a recruit.”

Work-life balance continues to be a significant barrier to women progressing in the workplace, she thinks. “When you look at the research, there are a lot of women who get to senior levels these days, and I know this in my organisation, who don’t have families. Work-life balance is a big issue for women. It’s that flexibility in terms of your work.”

Strengthening the pipeline of women coming through into top jobs, especially in traditionally masculine roles, takes an active effort. “It takes support, it takes mentoring, it takes development for women to have confidence in themselves that they can do this role,” she argues.

Managing the G20 security response

Before taking up the helm at QFES, Carroll became known for her work in charge of the security response to the 2014 Brisbane G20 leaders’ summit.

After seeing protests at previous G20s in London, Toronto and Pittsburgh descend into chaos and arrests, she decided to make a serious effort to avoid such scenes while responding in a manner appropriate for a democracy.

“We knew from the outset we had to do things very differently, we had to learn the lessons of the past, and we had to implement a completely new business model, which we did, to make sure that it succeeded,” she said. This was no small task, involving, for example, re-training 7000 staff.

“A lot of that started with our interaction with protest groups and establishing very close relationships and engaging with them so we could facilitate their protest actions. We spent an inordinate amount of time working with our different issue-motivated groups.

“I think when you saw how it played out on that weekend, it was truly successful. I think it was because we invested two years of not paying lip service to the lessons of the past, but learning from them, and addressing what the issues actually were.”

Though she reckons she could write an entire book on the lessons learned, she says the key ones were “relationships, relationships, relationships” and to surround yourself with good people. The leadership team also spent a lot of time travelling.

“Some of the best lessons were when we went into that country and spoke to people from Toronto and London. That’s when you got the real lessons about what was actually happening on the ground,” she observed.

“I think one of the biggest lessons is that you’ve got to learn from the past and you have to change things, because your practices from the past will not work in an event like this.”

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