LAFD deputy chief on being a female firefighter: 'The eyes are on you, and they're on you a little bit longer'

Trailblazing FDNY firefighter Regina Wilson took the stage at the 2019 MAKERS conference Thursday to speak with two female firefighters on the front lines in California: Kristina Kepner, battalion chief, Los Angeles Fire Department, and Kristin Crowley, deputy chief, LAFD.

Kepner and Crowley both beat the odds to become firefighters (just four percent of firefighters nationwide are women). But this year, with the deadliest, most destructive wildfire season on record, they faced a new challenge. “I had the opportunity to be on the front lines for the first several days of the fire,” said Kepner, who heads up firefighter recruitment for the LAFD. “[We] did structure protections and were able to go to several neighborhoods and protect the structures.”

Crowley, who was off duty when the Woolsey Fire broke out, ended up pitching in anyway — and drew strength from the obstacles she’d already overcome. “For me, 20 years ago, I was one of two women in a class of 50, and we were considered an anomaly,” Crowley said. “The eyes are on you and they’re on you a little bit longer, [but] once you prove yourself — that you have the capability — then the sky’s the limit. It just takes some time to work your way through that, and gain that respect.”

Kepner agreed, saying that it’s key for female firefighters to find strength from within. “You can’t let anybody or anything get in your way,” said Kepner. “If you have a goal, people are going to say a lot of things, especially in the fire department. You might hear, ‘No you can’t do it yet, or you don’t have enough time on,’ but when I felt I was ready, I made sure to take that step.”

Wilson, who proudly introduced the two trailblazing firefighters, is a pioneer in her own right. Featured as a MAKER in 2018, she became just the 12th African-American woman to join the FDNY in 1999, putting her on a team of first responders who raced to the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.

Since then, Wilson has climbed the ranks of the firefighting world, becoming the first woman to head up the 75-year-old Vulcan Society, a nonprofit made up of black firefighters who are committed to promoting diversity within the FDNY. But she, like her LAFD counterparts, hopes that firefighters will eventually lose the classification as a “non-traditional” female job.

Her talk with her two fellow LAFD firefighters Thursday ended with a reflection on representation from Crowley, who saw few female firefighters before becoming one. “We’ve all heard that term ‘if you can see it you can be it,’ I think that runs all the way across whatever type of organization you work for,” said Crowley. “I can’t tell you how many times little girls, when I was driving [the fire engine], would stop and grab their mom and say, ‘Look at that, I can do that.’ The more we can get people in different positions…and [they] can see us doing well and influencing, the better we’re all going to be.”