OU's Kalkbrenner Named First Female Fire Chief in PhoenixPosted by Paula Paine on April 1, 2015 in "fire chief", Kalkbrenner, OU-AZ, Phoenix, "Your OU" Robert Frost’s famous poem inspires us to take the road less traveled, but how many of us actually do that?
Kara Kalkbrenner chose the unlikely road and it made all the difference. As a teenager, Kalkbrenner worked for a department store part-time. The work was fine but she knew she wanted to do something impactful with her career choice. Both her mother and grandmother served their communities as nurses and Kalkbrenner seriously considered following in their footsteps. She also hoped to use her natural athletic ability in her profession. A couple of her regular customers casually suggested she investigate fire fighting and Kara took their suggestion to heart.
“In 1983, very few people knew females could even serve as firefighters,” says Kalkbrenner. “It just wasn’t thought of as a career for women.” However, Kalkbrenner decided to volunteer in a youth program despite her age and gender. She was too young to officially attend the firefighting academy but she spent many hours in whatever firehouse needed help, doing what was asked. At the age of 18, she took both the written and physical agility test, followed by a series of interviews with firefighter officers. At last, she was admitted to the academy with four other young women. Two of the five graduated and went on to serve as fire fighters—Kara was one of them. She began as a fire fighter and EMT and then advanced to engineer.
“An engineer drives the truck,” says Kalkbrenner. “She is also in charge of the truck’s maintenance. An engineer makes sure the truck is ready to go when it is needed.” After serving as an engineer, Kara continued her ladder climbing to captain, then battalion chief, then deputy chief, and assistant chief to executive assistant. Then, in March 2014, the Phoenix fire chief stepped down in order to take care of his ailing father. Kalkbrenner was named interim fire chief. By this time in her 29 years service, she had served in every job in the department. This experience served her well when it came time to interview with 21 different city officials and business owners. Her varied and thorough career was impressive and so was her education.
While not required for her position at the time, in 1999, Kalkbrenner added to her workload by attending Ottawa University’s fire service management program. The coursework was new for the university but Kalkbrenner says “I enjoyed every aspect of it from day one.” She was particularly impressed by and grateful for professors who were also actual fire fighters.
“I appreciated that OU used people who were in the field as instructors,” says Kalkbrenner. “That was huge to me. I was also very excited to dig into the curriculum—budgeting, management, community leadership—everything I would need to know as I moved into different areas of the department.” Another aspect Kalkbrenner found useful was that of group interaction. “A lot of the classes I took required group thinking,” says Kalkbrenner. “In my job we have a labor management process that brings together union employees and management to sit down and collaborate. While I’ve been doing that for decades, my OU classes enhanced the experience. I fine tuned that skill while learning from different backgrounds, values and lifestyles.”
Kalkbrenner left a positive impression on her OU professors, as well. Kim Romero remembers her as “one of the top students in her class, very dedicated to learning her craft. She was committed and an excellent student. No one at OU was surprised she made fire chief.”
She’s broken stereotypes and glass ceilings. She’s earned the respect of her fellow fire fighters and the trust of a large metropolitan area. However, Kalkbrenner is just getting started. In 2007 she spearheaded the first strategic plan the Phoenix Fire Department ever made and she helps update it every 18 months. Her department’s fleet of trucks is aging and needs to be repaired or replaced. Phoenix also hosted Super Bowl XLIX and Phoenix Fire, in conjunction with multi-agencies, successfully faced all the challenges that presented. Kalkbrenner lost 50 percent of her fire prevention staff during the recession and is working to build back those positions. She prioritizes fire fighter training and continuing education. The department also focuses on community outreach and relationships. Because the public trusts fire fighters, Kalkbrenner and her team are in a unique position to connect community needs with the proper resources. Years ago, by listening to one woman’s honesty, Kalkbrenner learned a lesson she still applies today.
“We were doing childhood immunizations in a low income neighborhood,” says Kalkbrenner. “A woman looked at us and said, ‘that’s really nice but the kids here need diapers.’ I realized right then that our plan was second to what the community really needs. Our plan has to meet them where they are or it isn’t successful.”
Kalkbrenner shares her secrets to success. “You can do anything as long as you have the skillset and the drive,” she says. “Choose a career path you are a good fit for mentally and emotionally. Also you absolutely must have a support network in friends and family.”
Fire Chief Kalkbrenner followed a path only a few other women have chosen but she was right for the career and its requirements and that has made all the difference.