Laura Kavanagh appointed as FDNY’s first female commissioner, US
New York City Mayor Eric Adams on Thursday, 27 October 2022, appointed acting Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh to lead the department on a permanent basis, making her the first female commissioner in the 157-year history of the Fire Department of New York. "Laura Kavanagh is a proven and tested leader and I'm proud to announce her historic appointment today," the Democratic mayor said.
Kavanagh, aged 40, has served as acting commissioner since the retirement of Commissioner Daniel Nigro in February. She will oversee a department of 17 000 and $2 billion budget, including fire fighters and emergency medical workers. Her appointment as commissioner represents progress for a department seeking to diversify after decades as a white male bastion.
As of August, there were 141 female fire fighters in the FDNY, the most since a lawsuit forced the department to hire women as fire fighters in the 1980s.
Kavanagh has never been a fire fighter herself. She was a senior adviser to former Mayor Bill de Blasio and a campaign staffer for de Blasio and former President Barack Obama before joining the department in an administrative role in 2014 and was named first deputy commissioner in 2018.
As first deputy commissioner and acting commissioner, Kavanagh oversaw the department's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and its response to tragedies including a Bronx fire that killed 17. She is a graduate of Whittier College in California and has a master's degree in public administration from Columbia University.
She has won the support of the rank-and-file during her tenure. “We congratulate her. She’s a great candidate. She’s a champion who fought for EMS and will continue fighting for us,” said Oren Barzilay, president of Local 2507, the union representing the FDNY’s EMTS, paramedics and fire inspectors.
Her beaming mother Susan held out a bible that once belonged to Kavanagh’s grandmother as she took the oath of office inside Engine 33 and Ladder 9 on Great Jones Street in NoHo where the FDNY’s first fire commissioner, John Scannell, had his office in 1898. “I was doing ok until I had to do that,” Kavanagh said after sharing a prolonged hug with her mom. “That was very special for me. To say it's the honour of a lifetime is an understatement,” Kavanagh said, accepting her Fire Commissioner shield. “This story is quintessentially a New York City story.
“This story is simply not possible anywhere else,” she said. “I almost cannot believe it.”
After growing up as an only child in San Francisco and attending Whittier College in California, Kavanagh, who described herself as an introvert, bought a one-way ticket to New York, where she got a master’s degree in public administration at Columbia University. After working in the non-profit sector, she became an integral part of several mayoral, congressional and presidential campaigns before becoming a special assistant to former Mayor de Blasio.
She was given a leadership position in the FDNY in 2014 and was named the FDNY’s first deputy commissioner four years later. Since moving to New York, Kavanagh has lived in every borough. She has also raced in every borough: the avid runner has participated in two New York City marathons. “The city is the love of my life and I am relentlessly optimistic about its future,” she said.
Like the city itself, the FDNY “is about making the impossible possible,” Kavanagh said. “The FDNY makes up some of the strongest strands of our city’s DNA.”
Adams always wanted Kavanagh to be part of his administration but it took eight months before he officially named her fire commissioner. The city underwent an extensive national search for Nigro’s replacement, Adams said but “over and over again I just kept coming back to her leadership.”
“We lost fire fighters in the first months we were here,” Adams said. “Each time I spoke with their families, she was there. And sometimes she was there before everyone else. Even at 3 or 4 in the morning, she was a ring away.”
Adams, who wanted to diversify the city’s leadership since he was elected to office, said Kavanagh will be the first woman to lead the largest fire department in the country, an agency that is still predominantly composed of white men.
Addressing the FDNY’s rank and file, Adams said to “follow the leadership, no matter what the gender may be, you are raising your standard as fire fighters and you are willing to face the future head-on. You have earned the right to be called bravest because not only are you willing to fight the flames in buildings but the flames that keep our futures burned down over and over again,” he said.
Adams admitted he took so long to appoint a fire commissioner because he “didn’t know the FDNY.”“I didn’t understand the culture, the agency,” he said. “This is an organisation rooted in tradition. You can’t just drop anyone into the FDNY. But before the end of fire safety month, I said ‘Let’s put out this fire and name a commissioner,’” he joked.
Sources: The New York Post, New York Daily News