July 22 was a historic day for the Frederick County (Md.) Division of Fire & Rescue Services as they welcomed their first female fire chief, Denise Pouget. Not only is she the first woman to lead the department, but Pouget will also be the first to hold dual positions as both chief and director of the Division of Fire & Rescue Services.
In this new role, she will oversee the recent unification of both career and volunteer firefighters in the county. Pouget is formerly the assistant fire chief in Alexandria, Va.
Pouget began her firefighting career in high school, volunteering at the age of 15. She knew right away that it was a profession she was passionate about and worked hard to get the experience she needed to move up the ranks. However, she soon discovered that to advance further in her career, she would need to work hard in something that had never come easy to her: school.
Pouget’s inspiration to continue her education came from her older sister. Her sister always encouraged her to pursue her passion for firefighting, but also told her that if she wanted to be a leader and a manager, she would need an education. Pouget realized her sister was right.
"As I got into the field, I realized there was a lot I didn’t know," she said. So Pouget enrolled in American Public University and graduated in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in fire science management. However, her education endeavors did not stop there. In February of this year, Pouget graduated with a master’s degree in emergency and disaster management (EDM).
"I’m the last person you would think would have her master’s, but again, if you love what you do and want to get to the next level … that means being prepared. Being prepared means opening your mind to new ideas and information and I think that’s what young people coming into the fire service need to understand," she said.
Pouget decided to get her master’s in EDM because the fire service continues to evolve as a multifaceted field. This degree gave her a great foundation in planning for large-scale events as well as a better understanding of the role other agencies play during such emergencies. As many fire leaders know, planning has become an increasingly important element in fire service management and a degree in EDM provided her the knowledge and skill set to better prepare for such incidents.
Pouget has already had many opportunities to put her education to work. For example, during the massive snowstorm that crippled the Mid-Atlantic states in 2010 (AKA Snowmageddon), Pouget was sequestered for 10 days in the emergency operations center in Alexandria. She was able to apply her EDM studies to better understand how multiple agencies needed to work together.
"It was a perfect example of entities coming together to help a little city like Alexandria when we desperately needed it," said Pouget. "Education did not teach me everything, but it did help prepare me when I was thrust into these roles."
Now that she has achieved the rank of chief, Pouget recommends to firefighters who want to advance their careers that begin their degree as soon as possible.
"Just start doing it little by little and eventually you’ll get there and you’ll be glad you did because it’s a tremendous sense of accomplishment," she said. "That’s not to say education is everything, but education and experience together makes the leader."
And she knows she’s not done learning either. "I believe in higher education, and I’m a lifelong learner. I never think I know everything I need to know, there’s always something else out there to learn," she said.