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Now browsing: Hometown News > News > Martin County

City's first female fire chief was 'constantly challenged'
Rating: 3.96 / 5 (47 votes)  
Posted: 2012 Nov 30 - 06:52


Announced retirement earlier this fall


By Samantha Joseph

Staff writer



MARTIN COUNTY -- Days before the last Thanksgiving holiday she would spend as Stuart's fire chief, Lori Sunderman was nothing but grateful.

The city's first female fire chief, Chief Sunderman is credited with a multitude of achievements during her tenure, which includes building new stations, maintaining the area's strong fire safety rating from the independent Insurance Service, improving outcomes among emergency medical services patients, requiring higher education standards for newly promoted officers, implementing flexible work schedules for administrative staff, and improving firefighter safety with gear, equipment and vehicle designs.

But as she looks back on her seven-year career with much pride, there's one thing she is most looking forward to in the days ahead.

"I loved my job, but I am really anxious to sleep," she said. "The stress is so great that I didn't sleep very much. I'm looking forward to sleeping."

Much of the stress came from repeated challenges to a pioneering woman in a department and career field historically reserved for men.

"I have mixed emotions. It's been a wonderful career," Chief Sunderman said. "No matter where you go, with every promotion, you constantly have to prove yourself. And everywhere else you go outside of your department family, questions (arise) about whether you can do the job, instead of looking at your credentials. Whether they say it or not, you can tell people are doubtful. You constantly have to show all the facts and all the figures."

Chief Sunderman rose through the ranks during a 22-year career with the city. She joined the department after serving in the U.S. Navy, and started as a probationary firefighter in 1990.

She said some of her male colleagues were helpful and supportive along the way. Among them was Assistant Fire Chief David Dyal, who will become interim chief following her retirement.

But several others questioned her abilities.

"The natural instinct is for men to be helpers of women," she said. "And if something is wrong, they want to tell you how to fix it. They think they can always do the job better than you. As a chief you're constantly being challenged."

One of the biggest challenges came when Stuart firefighter Wayne Duffy accused the chief of sexual harassment and of punitively denying him a promotion in 2006.

The city sided with Chief Sunderman, but members of the local firefighters union rallied behind Mr. Duffy.

"That was a lot of game-playing," Chief Sunderman said.

"Of course, I couldn't speak because I was the chief. Before this happened, 80 percent of the union had told me he needed to be fired. But they stuck up for him and wanted to protect him. It was rocky, but it was because of playing a game. That's how the union does it. The union is very possessive of protecting its own."

In the final days of the chief's term, union leaders said they've enjoyed a good relationship with the department's leader.

"Everyone's reaction was shock when we initially heard (she was retiring). Everyone supported her and thought she was good for the department," said Lt. Tory Bauser, president of the City of Stuart Local 2411, the firefighter union. "The department supports her and always has supported her. We wish her well in her future endeavors, and we know that she will do well in whatever she decides to get into."

Chief Sunderman, who submitted her 90-day retirement notice on Sept. 30, said she is considering several new ventures, including teaching at the National Fire Academy, as well as some consultant work.

"I have to open other doors, and God will show me where to go," she said.

Despite her decision to change directions, Chief Sunderman encouraged women considering a career in firefighting to pursue the option and make strides in the profession.

"I think, through my history, at least 80 percent of my troops have really cared for me and believed in me," Chief Sunderman said. "It's not a popularity contest. I (did) it to protect my community and the citizens."

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