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Leadership Profile: Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr

Thursday, 05 April 2018 00:00 Written by  Super User
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Guest blog written for Action Training Systems by Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (Ret.)

Rhoda Mae KerrBefore she became a firefighter and began a 30-year (and still counting) career in the fire service, Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr was a coach and physical education teacher at the high school level for 12 years. It's not hard to imagine Kerr in that role, as she's widely known in the fire service for her infectious smile, laughter, and energy. When it comes to the embodiment of a leader as someone who strives to make the people around her better than they think they can be, Chief Kerr is a "five-star" performer.

Chief Kerr is a fourth-generation firefighter with 30 years of experience who currently serves as the Fire Chief of the Austin (TX) Fire Department. She began her fire service career in 1983 with the Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) Fire Department where she rose through the ranks to become that department's first female deputy fire chief.

In January 2004, Chief Kerr left the "Sunshine State" and moved to the "The Natural State", Arkansas, where she became the first female fire chief for the Little Rock (Ark.) Fire Department. She would serve with the men and women of that department for five years during which time she not only helped that department in "elevating their game" but also increased her department's visibility on the national stage.

Always up to new challenges, Chief Kerr left Little Rock in February 2009 to become the fire chief for the fire department in America's 15th largest city, Austin, Texas. Not only was Austin a bigger city than Little Rock, its fire department's workforce was almost three times larger than that of Little Rock (1,100 personnel compared to 400 in Little Rock).

In February 2018, the city of Ft. Lauderdale, FL announced that Chief Kerr would be returning to where she started her career and will become the first female Fire Chief in the Ft. Lauderdale fire department's 106-year history. 

Chief Kerr earned her bachelor's degree in physical education and health from William Patterson University in New Jersey. She later completed her Master of Public Administration (M.P.A.) at Florida International University. Chief Kerr is also a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program.

Chief Kerr was also selected as a FEMA Fellow to participate in the John F. Kennedy School of Government program, Senior Managers in Government, at Harvard University. That limited-student program is a premier executive development program for elected, appointed and senior career officials in the U.S. federal government and their military, corporate sector and international counterparts. And Chief Kerr was selected a 2nd time to attend the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative.

Another "glass ceiling" broken

In August 2015, Chief Kerr became the first female president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) after having served as the IAFC's 2nd Vice President. The IAFC is one of the oldest professional associations in the United States, established in 1873.

In a 2015 interview with Austin's KXAN.com, Chief Kerr had this to say about becoming the first woman in 142 years to lead the IAFC, "It's an opportunity to "break that mold." The door to opportunity is marked 'Push' and only you can lock it."

More than a fire chief

Chief Kerr has an equally impressive curriculum vitae when it comes to her passion and dedication to improving professionalism in the fire service. Look for yourself at the organizations that she participates in, participation fueled by her passion and enthusiasm for helping other people to become passionate and enthusiastic about what they do, regardless of what they do.

• Texas Fire Chief's Association;
• Capitol Area Fire Chief's Association (Austin is the Texas state capitol);
• Austin Area Urban League;
• International Association of Women in the Fire and Emergency Services;
• Human Relations Committee of the IAFC (Past Chair); and
• National Society of Executive Fire Officers (Past president).

Chief Kerr is actively involved as a member of FireRescue Magazine's editorial board and she serves on the Advisory Committee for St. Edward's University's Public Safety Management Program. And was honored in 2013 when the Girl Scouts of Central Texas named Chief Kerr a Woman of Distinction.

As we enter 2018, women still make up less than 4 percent of the career firefighters in the United States. Too frequently, we still see news headlines like this: XYZ Fire Department Hires First Female Firefighter. Chief Kerr has been on the front-lines in the effort to show more women that a career in the fire service can be a challenging and rewarding career choice.

Along the way, she's also been a role model for other women as they've overcome hurdles in their own fire departments to rise through the ranks to become chief officers and fire chiefs. Her example has led many of those women to "unlock" that door that's marked "Push."

For more information on Action Training Systems' video resources call 800.755.1440 ext 3 or email info@action-training.com

Robert Avsec

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (Ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Va.) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an active instructor for fire, EMS, and hazardous materials courses at the local, state, and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor of science degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master of science degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program. Since his retirement in 2007, he has continued to be a life-long learner working in both the private and public sectors to further develop his "management sciences mechanic" credentials. He makes his home near Charleston, W.Va.

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