When Kristin Crowley graduated from college, she planned on going to medical school and becoming an orthopedic surgeon. To bolster her application and get some real-world experience, the biology major from Green Bay, Wis., moved to Los Angeles to become an EMT and paramedic.
She entered paramedic school, where many of her fellow students planned to become firefighters, but Crowley kept her sights on a medical degree. Then came ride-outs with the Los Angeles Fire Department.
“As soon as I stepped over that threshold of the fire station and got a taste of what it was like to be part of a team like the LAFD, I was hooked,” Crowley told The Lily. “I did an absolute 180.”
That decision would change the course of her life. On Tuesday, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced his nomination of Crowley to become the city’s 19th fire chief. If confirmed by the Los Angeles City Council (which is expected), she would become the first woman to lead the LAFD. She also joins the department amid allegations of harassment and sexual assault.
Crowley, 50, is serving as the acting deputy chief and fire marshal. She spoke with The Lily about the prospect of taking over the country’s third-largest fire department, confronting allegations of sexual harassment in the fire service and more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Congratulations on the nomination. It’s a huge honor, and also a huge responsibility. Is this something that you had planned or hoped for?
A: I think I am the first fire chief in the history of the LAFD who was a paramedic. That really gives me a unique perspective, especially if we’re providing emergency medical services about 85-plus percent of the time. So that’s going to be a big focus in my initiatives.
I knew that I wanted to push and learn in my job and never become complacent. I didn’t know that I was going to end up in the top position, but I knew that I wanted to push and grow and continually learn and become very competent in each of the ranks that I held.
Q: Putting the fire department aside for a moment, you’re still a woman who has a career. A lot of women don’t know how to strategize or take their career to the next level.
What gives you that optimism, that confidence and knowing how to go about that? Did you find mentorship, either within or outside the department?
A: I think it’s a combination of having an internal drive, because that’s what you fall back on. I just knew that with whatever I was going to do in life; I think it was part of my upbringing, part of my competitiveness. I played three sports in high school, I played two sports in college. I was always very drawn to competing and pushing myself.
Q: I spoke to a firefighter yesterday and asked how they would define your leadership style and what they saw as your strengths. They described it as very collaborative and willing to listen to all parties. Does that sound right to you?
A: There’s no ego, right? The motivation behind why I was advancing was never for myself, or for my ego. It was to be in a position of more influence so that I can bring others’ perspectives and needs along with me. So to say that I’m collaborative, it’s true, because I can’t pretend to understand what our people’s needs are.
I’ve been very thoughtful about bringing people along versus just making decisions on an island. Especially if you’re coming into a situation that may have a lot of challenges and complications, you can’t just step in and say, “Today I’m going to fix it.” I’m not going to pretend that I know all the answers.
I learned that early on you can’t do this by yourself. There’s no way. So people ask, especially in the fire department, there’s, like, no females there. We had one — Roxanne Bursik was elevated to deputy chief position for a short time frame. I remember being new on the job and watching her. And she was the first battalion chief, she was the first assistant chief, she was the first deputy chief. I got to see her get elevated for the right reasons.
I’ve also had mentors. I went through a 20-week academy. Once you graduate, you rotate through three different fire stations for one year of your probation. … We had a task-force commander, Tim Ernst — that’s the captain who’s in charge of our shift. I’m on the truck with him full-time, so he’s seen me work hard and put my head down and learn my job. For some reason, he pulled me into the front office. And he took the time to sit me down and said, “Kristin, you know what, you are going to have every opportunity in this job to succeed. I see something in you, and you’re going to do something special on this job.”
You’re just trying to get through probation. So he really empowered me, right from the get-go. And this, by the way, is one of the toughest truck houses in the city. To this day, he is still somebody that I keep in touch with. He’s been there throughout my career.
Q: As you may know, a lot of women are looking to transition and are dissatisfied with their jobs. I think people are searching for more, including how to get to the next level or a different career, or how to make more of an impact, within their industry or in the world.
A: You hear a lot of the same issues [in the fire department]. I’ve had the opportunity to speak at different engagements and my word of advice, especially to women, is, sometimes you can’t wait for that pat on the back. That’s how it works in the fire service. “Okay, kid, you’re ready to go.” And you’re waiting for that. You wait and you wait. And you might not get that.
Sometimes you don’t have to wait for that pat on the back, and you have to set yourself up for success and show your value in what you’re bringing to the team. Otherwise, you may be waiting for a career.
Q: You’re coming in at a time in which women firefighters, especially, and racial minorities have alleged harassment and hazing and haven’t had that kind of mentorship and encouragement and actually had the opposite experience. How, from a leadership point of view, would you address that?
A: The reality is just having me in the seat — that is challenging the status quo. It’s a really nice opportunity, organizationally, to kind of hit that reset button. So when it comes to the work environment, if anybody is going to take this to the next level, in regard to the accountability of how we treat one another in the fire station, or in an office environment, it’s going to be me.
But the accountability piece, and the trust in the system, is where I’ll be focusing. It’s one thing to say nothing’s happening, or this is happening in the work environment, the department’s not doing anything. So to ask me as a fire chief, what are you going to do? That means that I am going to focus on ensuring that our work environment has zero tolerance — and I mean zero tolerance — for harassment, hazing, discrimination, because I have come up through the ranks and I have experienced a handful of things that were inappropriate. And I can tell you that I handled it. I had it within me to handle that situation one-on-one with that individual and clearly articulated what I’m going to tolerate and what I’m not.
So now that I’m in this position of authority, once confirmed, I have the ability to lead this organization forward into the future. I will make sure that our members understand what will be tolerated and what will not be tolerated. And that’s going to be one of my number one focuses and to ensure that when our members — all members — come to work, that we remain professional, we understand the importance of inclusiveness, that we understand the importance of equity, that we understand and truly respect the diversity that people bring to the job because it makes us better.
Q: What are your other goals?
A: First and foremost, our number one mission is to be able to provide services to citizens. And you know as well as I do, like every other industry, the staffing issue is creating a problem, meaning that members were off with covid. We’ve got people who are injured; they have injuries, because of what we do as firefighters. We’ve got health issues because of the things that we’re exposed to. We’ve got mental health issues. So you can see all the layers that can create problems when it comes to staffing models. So priority-wise, [we’re] focusing on how we can better support our workforce.
We’re working diligently. We’re hiring new firefighters. We’re looking at different ways to provide service. But the staffing and making sure that we can when we’re ready to respond is our number one priority.