“One thing all women should remember is that you are responsible for your destiny and career. If you sit down and wait for things to happen, nothing will happen. However, with hard work, lots of changes can take place. Be the change. Make the changes happen.”
These were the words of the senior district manager at the CoE’s DEMS Training Academy, Theresa Geldenhuys, who recently made history by becoming the first female president of the Southern African Emergency Services Institute (SAESI).
Geldenhuys explained that SAESI was an NGO formed in 1959 dedicated to protecting life, property, and the environment.
SAESI wants to promote community safety and the aspirations of its members by promoting all aspects of emergency services.
The institute is registered as a professional body for firefighters in SA with the South African Qualifications Authority.
Several CoE officials are members of the institute and serve in various capacities.
Geldenhuys said she was over the moon about being the new president.
“It’s incredible. I hoped with everything in me that I would get this. It is humbling to know so many people have faith in me and think I can make a difference,” she said.
Geldenhuys said she would like to get a firefighters’ education in line with NQF and improve the relationship with stakeholders, among other things.
“It’s wonderful to see the firefighters flourish and use what we taught them throughout the country and, in some cases, in other countries too.”
The newly elected president started volunteering as a firefighter in 1990. She started at the Germiston Fire Station and moved to the Leon Ferreira Fire Station in 2003. Before she became involved with emergency services, she was a nurse.
“I was a nurse originally and dealt with the firefighters who brought their patients to the casualty department at the hospital I worked at then. It looked interesting, and I joined the fire service as a volunteer. At the first motor vehicle accident, I was told to stand next to the fire engine and watch what the firefighter did. I was hooked. Then came the first factory fire. I was given an axe, and two of us were sent up on the roof to create ventilation openings. What an experience. I was sure this was what I was supposed to do. I left nursing and joined the fire service. Now, just over 32 years later, I know I made the right decision.
“I worked at various fire stations as an operational firefighter and officer. I am also an advanced life support paramedic, a hazmat technician (deals with hazardous materials) and have completed several rescue modules. I have seen horrible things and worked in strange situations. However, as part of a team, you deal with everything that comes your way. I have also seen amazing things that we celebrated. I was put on earth to do what I am doing and to make a difference in people’s lives.”
A woman in a male-dominated industry
According to Geldenhuys, being a female in a male-dominated occupation came with challenges, and if you allowed them to get you down, you would not survive.
“Sure, there is still harassment and sexism happening against female firefighters. In our occupation, there is insufficient research into health issues and cancer risks for all firefighters. However, this is the occupation I chose.
“The assumption by most men is that women can’t do the same things they do, and sometimes it is true. However, if the objective of the work is reached, the work is done. My approach is different because my life has taught me different things and different ways of thinking, but the job gets done.”
She said going through the ranks from a firefighter to a fire officer was challenging, at times, because she had to prove she was a competent firefighter.
“This made me more determined to be the best at what I did. Although I had to prove myself to fellow firefighters, I became one of the boys. I know it sounds strange, but it simply means we were a team working together. During my career, I attended lots of training and sometimes was the only female on that specific course. I completed it successfully. Although I was singled out sometimes, I had a few male colleagues who always had my back.”
Is enough done to advance women in this occupation?
“In Ekurhuleni, 26% of firefighters are females in positions from firefighters to managers. I think a lot was done to advance women in fire services countrywide. It has definitely changed a lot over the years.
Something for women considering firefighting as a career
“Know why you want to be a firefighter. It is a demanding job, and you will get physically exhausted. However, your focus should be on your goal. Be physically and mentally strong and ensure you have a good support network of people who can help you stay strong.”
“The training we do as firefighters and paramedics is tough, sometimes dirty, very physical, and sometimes mentally challenging. The training ranges from firefighter entry-level training to becoming a specialist in your field, like a fire service instructor (teaches other firefighters), a hazmat technician, a rescue technician (specialises in various rescue disciplines), and a fire inspector (does fire inspections), to name a few. Currently, I head up the Ekurhuleni Emergency Services Training Academy, accredited by various bodies to upskill firefighters.”
DEMS spokesperson William Ntladi firmly believed Geldenhuys deserved the election as the SAESI president.
“I have worked with her for some time. She shows passion and determination and wants to succeed. Her climbing the ladders of success motivates all of us.
“She still does everything physical and fitness-related and never expects to be treated differently because she is a woman,” said Ntladi.
Apart from her work, Geldenhuys enjoys baking and sewing.
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