Austin’s first female fire chief, Rhoda Mae Kerr, takes job in Florida


Kerr is the first female fire chief in Austin’s 160-year-old department.

She has a national profile in fire service, an industry that has struggled to attract women and minorities.

She’s leaving to become fire chief in Fort Lauderdale, where she began her career.

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.”

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Local

Chance of storms again Monday, but rest of week looks clear
Chance of storms again Monday, but rest of week looks clear

There’s a slight chance the Austin area could see more thunderstorms again Monday, but forecasters say weather for the rest of the week will look nothing like it did Sunday. The weekend wrapped up with showers and thunderstorms developing throughout the day Sunday and a warning that rain levels could reach 5 inches in parts of Travis County....
SANTA FE SCHOOL SHOOTING: Dan Patrick renews call to arm more teachers
SANTA FE SCHOOL SHOOTING: Dan Patrick renews call to arm more teachers

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Sunday blamed the Santa Fe High School shooting on “a violent culture where we devalue life,” citing movies and video games, bullying on social media, and abortion. He called for arming teachers as part of the militia envisioned by the Second Amendment. Patrick’s remarks on ABC’s “This Week&rdquo...
Downtown Austin’s ‘Jenga tower’ marks milestone
Downtown Austin’s ‘Jenga tower’ marks milestone

The Independent, a residential high-rise under construction in downtown Austin, has reached its peak height — a milestone for the 58-story building nicknamed the “Jenga tower.” Now standing at its full height of 685 feet, a topping-out ceremony Sunday marks the Independent’s official debut as the tallest building in Austin,...
Texas Digest: Gunfire near Dallas police station prompts more security

DALLAS Gunfire reported near police station Dallas police officials have advised officers to increase security outside the city’s police stations after someone in a vehicle opened fire near a station. Police Sgt. Warren Mitchell told The Dallas Morning News someone was shooting late Saturday night near the city’s Central Division station...
Accused Santa Fe shooter won't get death penalty -- and could get paroled someday 
Accused Santa Fe shooter won't get death penalty -- and could get paroled someday 

Even though Dimitrios Pagourtzis was charged as an adult in the mass shooting at a southeastern Texas high school Friday, he will not face the death penalty and could even be eligible for parole someday, the Houston Chronicle reported. Pagourtzis, 17, a high school junior, admitted to the shootings that killed 10 and wounded 13, according to court...
More Stories