When the elevators doors open upstairs at the Little Rock Fire Department's main firehouse on Chester Street, the first thing you see are the chiefs. They stare, smile, and frown out at you from a long row of portraits, stretching down the wall and all the way back to 1892, when the department was founded. Some of the oldest hang in gaudy Victorian frames - mustachioed men who look like they have smoke and whiskey in their veins.
Soon, for the first time in Little Rock and unique to almost any metropolitan fire department in America, the old chiefs will have to make room for the face of a woman, Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr, who was selected in September 2003 after a nationwide search. While Kerr is an exception in the male-dominated world of fire fighting - one of 14 female chiefs in the country, and one of only three women heading departments in cities the size of the Little Rock or larger - she'd better be more than a novelty act. She takes command of a department rattled by city budget cutbacks, manpower shortages, and years of what the rank-and-file saw as the brush-off from upper management, all at a time when the call of homeland security is asking more and more from fire services nationwide.
Ed Jaros is the president of the Little Rock firefighter's union, the International Association of Firefighters, Local 34. Jaros said that former Chief Phil Johnston -who served a stormy four-year tenure, and who, like Kerr, was selected from outside the department - had the rank and file feeling left out in the cold. "Small things would break around the fire station and we couldn't get them fixed," Jaros said. "We'd have people go without washers and dryers for the towels we use there at the station for six or seven months without getting them replaced."
Though no fault of Kerr's own, Jaros said Johnston's legacy, coupled with the fact they she, too, was hired from outside the department, will make her job harder. "It's going to be part of what she inherited," he said. "It's going to be a challenge to bring people on board with her goals, and she's going to end up having to make the first step with many members of the department."
While Jaros admits that the past has left him a skeptic, recent chats with Kerr about union concerns have left him upbeat. "From talking to her, I think she's up to the task," he said. "She's got the right personality for the job. You can tell she spent many years as a line firefighter. There's no doubt that she understands the unique mentality of somebody who works on this job."
Just down the hall from the somber line of old chiefs in the main firehouse is the hot seat: Kerr's office, gray walls framing a floor-to-ceiling view of the Little Rock skyline. Divorced with no children, Kerr has a runner's body, and a face often lit by a wide smile. When we spoke, she had been on the job four days. Her white helmet was on order, but the golden circle of five bugles - the insignia of fire chief - glittered on her collar. Firefighting is in her blood. Her great-grandfather was a New York firefighter in the days of horse-drawn engines. Her grandfather was a firefighter in New Jersey. The anti-fire bug skipped a generation and landed squarely on her, if belatedly.
In 1983, a phys-ed coach with 13 years of teaching under her belt, Kerr decided she wanted a new career. At 34, an age when many firefighters are already ascending through the ranks, Kerr found herself training with a class of rookies, some of them 15 years her junior. "I was always a runner," she said. "There was no way I could beat some of those young things, but I could certainly make sure that I was at the head of the pack."
Even then, she knew where she was headed. "You know, when I was a rookie firefighter in September of 1983," she said, "I challenged myself that I wanted to be the chief of a metropolitan fire department." Originally from New Jersey, Kerr served 21 years in the Fort Lauderdale Fire Department, working every job from boots-on-the-ground firefighter to driver to assistant chief in administration, before getting her wish. Her first official day as Little Rock's fire chief was January 2. Paid $102,000 per year, she is one of only 14 women employed by the Little Rock Fire Department and one of 11 women in the uniformed force of almost 400.
Inevitably, there will be some who question the hiring of a woman as Little Rock's top firefighter, but Kerr said her qualifications are well known. "I've spent 20 years preparing myself to assume this role," she said. Those preparations include a master's degree in public administration, and graduation from the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer program, which she called a four-year commitment. "I think that your actions speak for yourself," she said. "My ability to lead an organization and my interpersonal skills - I don't need to do anything else."
For all her excitement about her new position, it is, Kerr admitted, a scary time to be a firefighter. She had been on the job less than a week when we spoke, but already peppered her conversation with the names of Little Rock's public venues, the places where a nightmare scenario could spin out. Before 9/11 and the specter of biological terrorism, firefighters responding to an explosion during an event at War Memorial would have come out of the truck ready to roll. But these days, Kerr said, all first responders have been forced to be cautious. "Before we thought about terrorism and homeland security, we would have just gone up there and started helping them," Kerr said. "Now, we have to stand back and watch, and say, 'What am I seeing? What do I need to do to protect myself, so I can help those people?'"
Asked about the department's less heroic challenges (specifically the budget crunch, and the ongoing grumbling in the ranks that there is not enough manpower to allow time off for training on new equipment bought with federal Homeland Security grants), Kerr said that while she had heard some of the ongoing concerns, she couldn't comment knowledgeably about a solution yet. As an attendee to the mayor's state of the city address the night before our interview, however, Kerr seemed assured that things will be looking up for the department from a financial standpoint in 2004.
"We've had some grant money coming in and we've had the bond project approved," she said. "That will enable us to do some things that maybe we wouldn't be able to do otherwise."
Our interview over and on the way out, my photographer had Kerr pause for a shot with the long line of chiefs. Straightening herself before the photo, she ran her hands first over her tie, then the gold insignia on her collar, and smiled. "You know, Monday I was coming in and I wanted to wear a uniform shirt because I was going to go welcome the rookies," she said. "Sunday night, I had my shirt hanging up on the door, and I was putting the brass on, and I went to pin my bugles on. You know, five bugles means fire chief." The knowledge that she had made it hit her all at once. "I said, 'Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh!'"
While Ed Jaros isn't ready to share her excitement just yet, how Kerr plays her cards in the first few months on the job could win her a belated welcome. "You won't see us jumping out there and playing the band for her just yet," Jaros said. "But I think it could happen over time. She's got the right personality for it."