The first female chief of the St. John’s Regional Fire Department has ushered in a new era for firefighting in Newfoundland and Labrador – and is a testament to the fact that a Memorial degree can take you anywhere.
Alumna Sherry Colford wasn’t on the traditional path to fighting fires when she completed her first degree, but credits the broader influence of that experience on the analytical and communications skills that are so important in her work today.
Combined with the foundational, practical training she later received through the firefighting program at the Marine Institute, Chief Colford is a true Memorial University success story.
DM: You have a bachelor of arts degree in Russian language and literature, with a business minor. How did your education influence your career path?
CC: When I started at Memorial, I was doing a B.Comm. and quickly realized I was one of a large group of people in that field. I wanted to do something to stand out, so I did Russian language with business, thinking I would go into international business. I got a job with Vector Aerospace when I first graduated and at that time, our building overlooked the old central fire station.
For a couple of years I watched the crews do their training and I realized I wanted to do something different. I decided to go to the Marine Institute (MI) for their firefighting program and I never looked back.
I found my passion for helping others in this way and my career went on from there. But, it was my business background that got me in the door as a management analyst with the department, and of course the MI program was instrumental in my progress.
DM: Firefighting and this kind of role is traditionally a male-dominated occupation. What, if anything, do you think women bring to this role that’s different?
CC: Each person brings something different no matter their gender, but I think women bring diversity and that’s important. Anytime you add someone that can bring a different skill set or perspective to a role, it changes the dynamic and it changes what is brought to the table.
DM: You’ve been with the SJRFD for 15 years – what’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far?
CC: My biggest challenge has also been an opportunity – and that’s been the fact that I’ve only remained in a position for no more than five years before taking on new roles and responsibilities. I’ve always been in learning mode. I started as a management analyst, and five years in I was asked to handle the 911 communications position, as well.
Then I went to the province for 18 months, implementing the provincewide 911 system. When I came back I was asked to handle the fire prevention division as well as 911. So, all along the challenge has been staying on top of the changing roles.
DM: Your job is arguably one of the most stressful in the province. What motivates you in your work?
CC: Just watching what our staff do for the public and the amount of drive and passion they have for what they do. That motivates me every day. I don’t think you could go through this department and find one person who does not love their job.
So, what drives me is providing the resources necessary, providing what’s needed for our firefighters to go out and do their job every day. And to also provide the support needed for staff in all of our divisions so they can also provide a service to the public.
DM: This past June you were named the city’s first female fire chief. How did it feel to not only be made chief, but to be the first female in the role?
CC: I’m pretty proud. It took off much more than I thought it would. In this department I’ve never been known for being anything other than who I was – male or female. It’s always just been Sherry in this role and Sherry in that role and it’s never been, ‘Oh, but she’s female.’ I’ve never heard that here. I’ve never felt that “female” was brought into the process.
“I’m pretty proud that I’m the first female, and I hope there’s many more to come after me.”
I think when I was named fire chief, I was surprised at the response. But I do have an appreciation for what it meant for the public. I did get a lot of support and a lot of women in other male-dominated positions that came out and said, “You’re a role model for us.”
I think this shows that the dynamics are changing, that the industry is changing, that society is changing. I’m pretty proud that I’m the first female, and I hope there’s many more to come after me.
DM: What would you say to a young person considering their own career path? Maybe even thinking about a career as a firefighter?
CC: Don’t close off your possibilities. I completed a bachelor of arts degree that had no bearing whatsoever on the fire department at that time, but it was an important part of my process, of figuring out exactly what I wanted to do. I think post-secondary education is extremely valuable because it prepares you for anything out in the world.
But once you have that degree, don’t be limited by it – use it to your advantage and follow the things you’re passionate about.