Austin Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr, the first woman to lead the Fire Department, announced Wednesday that she is leaving and will take the helm of Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue, where her career began in South Florida 30 years ago.
Kerr will remain in her Austin post for the next four months, allowing her to complete several projects before transitioning to her new job in July.
“Although the decision to leave Austin did not come easily, Fort Lauderdale holds a special place in my heart,” Kerr said in a statement. “So when the opportunity arose to return there and close out my career as the leader of that organization, I could not say no.”
It was not immediately clear who would take over the Austin department or how the city would go about filling the position. A second major public safety agency — the Austin Police Department — has been without a permanent chief for more than a year with Assistant Chief Brian Manley serving in an interim status.
The Austin Fire Department, which has a budget of about $172 million, has 1,100 firefighters operating from nearly 50 stations. Firefighters answer about 90,000 emergency calls annually, ranging from first aid calls to major blazes.
By comparison, Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue has about 500 employees who answer about 54,000 annual calls.
Kerr, 69, is one of the most visible women nationally in the fire service, an industry that has struggled to recruit and retain women and minorities. From 2015 to 2016, she was the first female president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and last year she served as president of the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association. In 2016, she was appointed by President Barack Obama to the National Infrastructure Advisory Council, advising the president on matters regarding the security of critical infrastructure.
“During my tenure as IAFC president, I visited fire departments across the world and I can say with confidence that you do it better than anyone else,” Kerr wrote in a memo to her staff Wednesday.
Kerr joined the department in February 2009 and, in the nine years since, it has made several advancements, including funding and maintaining four-person teams on all frontline responding vehicles. The agency has also established a new Wildfire Division aimed at ensuring the agency is ready to respond so such threats.
The department expanded its annual smoke detector outreach and now distributes up to 2,500 free detectors annually. Kerr also has adopted internal policies addressing sexual harassment and relationships in the workplace.
But the department has also navigated challenges and complaints, including accusations that Kerr’s command staff failed to discipline a lieutenant accused of groping women on the job.
In that case, instead of discipline, the lieutenant’s supervisors sent him to get training from the department’s medical director. That same firefighter later retired after he was arrested and charged with secretly placing videotaping equipment in a women’s locker room.
In an unrelated case, another lieutenant with the agency has been accused of luring a stranded woman into his city-owned truck and sexually assaulting her.
Kerr also has struggled with her relationship with the firefighters union at times.
Last year, the organization voted for a second time to censure Kerr, an action that had no direct consequences for her. The move centered in part on Kerr’s desire to require all fire officials to be physically qualified to work at a fire scene. Kerr said the union was mischaracterizing her statements and that she would not apologize for having high demands.
“Through the years, Chief Kerr and I have rarely seen eye-to-eye on many of the issues, but I wish her well and hope she is successful in her next job,” union President Bob Nicks said.
Kerr will be able to draw a retirement from the city of Austin.
Kerr came to Austin after serving as the fire chief in Little Rock for five years and spending more than 20 years rising through the ranks to the position of assistant chief in Fort Lauderdale.
In her staff memo, Kerr wrote, “Words cannot describe how much I have enjoyed my time in Austin and serving as your fire chief. It has been one of the most special periods in my life and I will treasure it always.”