In what has been regarded as a male domain, a woman’s touch goes a long way.
And there could be no better example of the empathetic nature of a woman making a difference in the tough world of rescue services than Evelyn Lester, Hills State Emergency Services controller.
For Evelyn, a former nurse, that empathy is employed in dealing with people facing loss of property and loved ones as well as with her own team of volunteers.
Known as “mum” to her crew of 140 men and women, ranging in age from just 18 to their 70s, the 62-year-old is often called upon to offer counselling and advice on a range of personal problems.
“My door is always open and there often will be someone who needs some counselling or a sounding board if they are going through a tough time,” Evelyn said.

It is not officially part of her position but Evelyn is a natural calming influence and is happy to offer another side to her full-on job. A volunteer like her team, Evelyn is not sure how many hours she puts in each week, but can have a 380-hour month — more when there are interstate disasters to attend. While Evelyn, who joined the SES in 2002 and became controller in 2008, does not do much physical work these days, she can still be called upon to lend a hand on dangerous, urgent jobs. “In the recent Hills storms, a woman called us, frantic because she was without power, in the dark and with water rushing through her house,” Evelyn recalled. “On the way there, we had trees falling on the road and we had to stop to move them or cut them up. I was pretty scared that night.” But Evelyn cannot imagine doing anything else. She just loves the adrenaline rush that comes from being in dicey situations and the satisfaction of helping people alongside other emergency services.
“My husband grumbles he doesn’t see enough of me but I would be miserable doing nothing,” Evelyn said. “I joined the SES after caring for my mother for nine years and caring for a son with disabilities. It is my turn now to do something for me.” Commanding a diverse range of people has its challenges, and Evelyn admits she had to work to gain the trust of her crew when she first took over. She is proud to say that even the most strident naysayers now defer to her without any qualms. Evelyn joined the SES after her mother died and she wanted to be useful to the community. “I had cared for my mother for nine years at home as well as worked with a disability service as I have a son with disabilities, so I wanted to do something where I could use my skills while working with people,” she said.
Seeing an advertisement for the SES, Evelyn went along to an information session and knew that it was the place for her. Before long, she was chopping up trees, climbing on roofs and patching up tempest-damaged properties — and loving every minute of it. Evelyn has two children and four grandchildren, whom she wishes she could see more of, but they must be proud of their formidable nan. There have been a few female SES controllers around the state over the years and Evelyn said there should be more. “When I became controller, there was some opposition but I have proved myself,” she said. “As a nurse, I am able to read people, their body language, as well as have that empathy. That, and a loud, commanding voice!” Essentially, Evelyn’s job entails spending a lot of time at the computer assessing natural disaster data and looking at training programs she can introduce to her team when they gather at the SES headquarters in Balcolmbe Heights estate, Seven Hills, every Wednesday evening. During disaster time, the pace becomes frantic, with Evelyn often on the scene commanding the teams that can come from many different areas. “We attend wherever we are needed, locally or interstate, assisting the Rural Fire Service, ambulance and police, and we could be away for up to a week,” Evelyn said.
While SES teams do not actually put out fires alongside the RFS, they are involved in emergency repairs so people’s properties can be made safe. As volunteers, they have to be able to commit to a certain number of hours, working them around their family and work commitments. “We are asking people to give up their free time, taking them away from their families, and we have to deal with the outfall of that,” Evelyn said. “For long operations, especially those interstate, our people usually have to take leave from work but that is the commitment they make.” Rostering people to those time consuming jobs is part of the challenge for Evelyn. Of the 140 volunteers, about 35 are women. They come from all walks of life — students, engineers, IT staff, construction works and electricians. They have certain qualities in common, including stamina, an ability to work in a team and a desire to help the community. While lamenting that SES men and women are not paid as other emergency workers are, Evelyn said the dedication of her team could not be better if they were financially rewarded. “I have been ably helped by my deputy Malcolm Liston and all the team,” Evelyn said. But, as if her SES duties are not enough, Evelyn is a regular active participant in community causes such as the Mayor’s Winter Sleepout. “The Hills is a great community and I want to support it as much as I can,” she said. ☐