In July, I had the opportunity to attend the IAFC’S Fire-Rescue International in Charlotte, North Carolina. I had attended this conference in 2015 and 2016, and I looked forward to another year of new and interesting ideas to implement into my own department.
I’ll admit, each year I felt like I was the only woman chief present. Classes were developed around the word “he,” rarely a “she,” when referring to chiefs. It was always assumed I was one of the chiefs’ wives unless I was introduced otherwise.
This year marked a dramatic change in my outlook of this conference as I received an invitation to an all-day conference, separate from the main courses offered. The invitation I received was an email from Christine Booth, executive assistant for the IAFC. She said there would be an all-day conference for the Women Fire Chiefs Council on July 26 and I was invited.
I knew of only one other woman officers in Illinois and had been LinkedIn with two others from Kentucky and Arizona. I was thrilled to know that there were enough woman chiefs to form a council and I was excited to be a part of it. I responded I was most certainly attending and looked forward to meeting more woman with the same integrity.
The day arrived, and I was intimidated and nervous about to what to expect. Would these women be like me? I tend to blend in with the men in the fire service by using humor and my extra loud voice.
Would I be dismissed because some of these women run departments with a volume of 500-plus members? Would this be a gripe session about a male-dominated service?
Well, I was wrong in each of these concerns. We were all different, from chiefs like Rhoda May Kerr, past president of the IAFC and chief of a metro department in Austin, Texas, to Jona Olsson, who is the chief of an all-volunteer fire department in Questa, New Mexico. The diversity was extreme.
However, these women were intelligent, professional and open-minded and had a sense of humor that understood mine.
The most important factor was that this was not a place to whine and complain about how women have it so hard in a male-dominated profession; it was a place to promote success.
On the table in front of me was a mission statement that summed the day’s intentions: “The Women Fire Chiefs Council creates pathways to inspire, support and advocate for women leaders in the fire and emergency service.”
The Women Fire Chiefs Council was created out of an initiative from two past IAFC presidents, Chief John Sinclair and Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr. Chief Donna Black, Duck (North Carolina) Fire Department, and Chief Kara Kalkbrenner, Phoenix (Arizona) Fire Department, are Council cochairs with input from IAFC CEO/ Executive Director Mark Light.
Chief Sinclair advised them to seek out what they thought was best for the Council and thus they opened the same question up to all of us: “What do we think this should become?”
Introductions started around the room, and I couldn't believe the range in experience, knowledge and success. We were there to share our plans, not past experiences, and consider how we could mentor women in the fire and emergency service to seek leadership roles.
We had various speakers, and one in particular left the biggest impact on me. Her name is Tonya Hoover, and she’s the new superintendent of the National Fire Academy. Tonya spoke of seeking opportunities in her own life and how she came to the position she’s in now. Her tenacity and ability to create her own opportunities inspired me.
Before this meeting, I had thought being fire chief of the Broadview Fire Department would be my final working goal, but thanks to these woman, I can see there are more exciting roles ahead of me.
The vision and value statement will impact all my future goals and any members of the fire service I have the privilege to mentor.
Courage, integrity, respect, inclusivity, perseverance. The Women Fire Chiefs Council uses innovative methods to empower, engage and support woman leaders in the fire and emergency service, and I’m proud to be a part of it.