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New York Times
8 Apr 2023


NextImg:Opinion | A Tale of Fire and Ice

When women were first hired by the New York Fire Department in the early 1980s, no red carpet led to the red doors.

As Suzanne Daley reported in The Times, one pioneer female firefighter recounted that the men in her company “slammed doors in her face, swore at her, put firecrackers under her bed and once tried to lock her in a kitchen they had filled with tear gas.” Some women found urine in their boots. One was attacked with a knife.

No knives have been drawn since Laura Kavanagh, 40, became the city’s first female fire commissioner in October, but charges of backstabbing have flown.

Three months into her administration, she faced a mutiny by several of her male staff chiefs, giving one retired female firefighter I talked to flashbacks to reports of those early days of vitriol. Progress has been made, but the paternal, parochial 1950s mind-set has never really gone away in the overwhelmingly white, male, tradition-bound hierarchy, some female firefighters told me.

Sitting in her office in Brooklyn, wearing a flame-red jacket and black pants, Kavanagh said that growing up in a “large and complicated” clan and running a department with relatives cascading through the ranks make the turmoil she faces feel like a family feud, in a family with a life-or-death mission.

“It fits with my own family, for better or worse,” she said. “Sometimes there’s yelling and sometimes it’s not easy.”

A San Francisco native — her mother was a teacher, her father worked at the phone company — Kavanagh has an Irish-Italian background, mirroring her department’s traditional DNA. She has a small Celtic knot tattoo on her left wrist peeking out from under her white Apple Watch band.

If Hollywood filmmakers were looking to cast a big-city female fire commissioner, they would conjure Kavanagh — tall, athletic, with blue eyes, an auburn mane and a cleft in her chin.

ImageLaura Kavanagh, wearing a blue jacket, looks at an emergency medical technician inside an ambulance.
Credit...Sasha Arutyunova for The New York Times

Kavanagh does not blame misogyny for the firestorm. She said that some of the men just need to adjust to how she “looks and seems” — certainly, the commissioner’s SUV has never had an extra pair of high heels in the back seat before. “Change is just hard, period,” she said.

But her supporters think otherwise.

“She disrupted historical gender roles,” said Letitia James, the New York attorney general. “She did it by tearing off the Band-Aid, and historic wounds were exposed.”

Her critics, however, see a young commissioner in over her head, stepping on toes without thinking of the consequences.

Even though she has been at fire headquarters since 2014, as first deputy commissioner since 2018 and acting commissioner since February 2022, she is treading treacherous ground, with fault lines of class, sex and age in a department with over 17,000 employees and a $2 billion budget.

The drama began on Feb. 3, when Kavanagh delegated to her chief of staff the demotion of three three-star staff chiefs working at headquarters — Michael Gala, Fred Schaaf and Joseph Jardin — while she was in a meeting with the rest of her leadership team. (That the chief of staff, Luis Martinez, is an ex-cop rankled many in the Fire Department, given the storied rivalry between the agencies.) The three men, in their early 60s — they were in the group of 27 staff chiefs at headquarters — are deputy chiefs now, back in the field.

Kavanagh did not get into detail about the reasons for the demotions, although an aide said the commissioner wanted to shake things up and send a message that she didn’t want to play “the same old game.”

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Kavanagh says she thinks she has support from rank-and-file firefighters.Credit...Jasmine Clarke for The New York Times

Despite Kavanagh’s reticence, there may be some clues to what that game is. Gala wrote a public letter in 2011 complaining that “the frenzy to diversify” the department would cause “future ruination.” The New York Daily News reported that as Queens borough commander, Schaaf resisted disciplining some firefighters after allegations of racism at one of his firehouses. The paper also reported that Jardin was the subject of a series of complaints with the city’s Office of Equal Employment Opportunity over his management style.

Days after the demotions, John Hodgens, the five-star chief of department and its highest-ranking uniformed official, and John Esposito, the chief of fire operations, asked to be demoted to Civil Service ranks.

Allies of Hodgens and Esposito — union representatives said the two men declined to be interviewed — told me the chiefs felt humiliated because they learned about the demotions only when one of the demoted men texted someone at the big meeting with Kavanagh, after she had left.

Hodgens, in particular, is a surprising adversary, since he had at times supported Kavanagh’s quest for the top job, and Kavanagh promoted both men to their current posts.

Further inflaming matters, someone taped the meeting and leaked it to The Daily News — a breach of department protocols that is being investigated. On the tape, the paper reported, Kavanagh can be heard complaining that she had gotten little response to her requests for innovative suggestions, while chiefs can be heard asking about vacation time and the use of personal cars — making them look like entitled crybabies and the commissioner look like a forward-looking leader. A lawsuit from three chiefs, two of whom Kavanagh demoted, accuses her camp of leaking the tape.

Meanwhile, seven staff chiefs have joined Hodgens and Esposito in solidarity, asking to be demoted. Kavanagh, trying to steady the ship, has not approved any of the requests.

James McCarthy, the president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, which represents officers above the rank and file, said the uprising is not waning. He said the chiefs and deputy chiefs involved do not see themselves as mutineers but more as principled resisters, “like Archibald Cox” during Watergate.

McCarthy called it “disingenuous” of Kavanagh’s supporters to label her critics in the department as misogynists resistant to change, given that his union supported a Black woman, Terryl Brown, the department’s chief legal counsel, for the commissioner job. Kavanagh ousted Brown about a month ago.

Kavanagh believes she has support among the rank-and-file firefighters and emergency medical technicians.

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Kavanagh at an Emergency Medical Services station in Harlem.Credit...Sasha Arutyunova for The New York Times

And those I spoke to outside the top ranks had little patience for the chiefs’ complaints. “A soap opera in a crystal palace,” an Emergency Medical Services union official called the controversy. “Chiefs sucking their thumbs and stamping their feet,” a firefighter said.

Kavanagh rejected the chiefs’ claims that the public, and firefighters, are in jeopardy without their decades of experience. Those claims didn’t seem to be true when a call came in about a building collapse in Brooklyn while she and I visited Rescue 1 in Midtown Manhattan on Tuesday. Firefighters piled into a truck in the blink of an eye.

“We don’t get to pick the emergency or the calamity. We just respond — that’s the name of the game,” said Dellon Morgan, a Brooklyn fire captain and former president of the Vulcan Society, an organization of Black firefighters. He finds the opposition to Kavanagh ego-driven: “Every step is being challenged, even the smallest moves, and it is just not necessary.”

Bertha Lewis, the head of the Black Institute, a New York-based policy group, said she had warned the commissioner that the old guard would come for her in a “Listen, little girl, how dare you question us?” moment and Kavanagh replied, “Let them come.”

Kavanagh’s friends say the uprising has upset her, but her reserved manner cloaks that. She told me that she has a “thick skin” and doesn’t let things like boos at a promotion ceremony in February affect her.

“I came here to do the right thing by the department and it’s going to require some hard decisions and some pushing,” she said. “It will be in the rearview mirror someday.”

When I asked the reason for the trio of demotions that sparked a revolt, she said she had “to simply get our head count where it needed to be.”

But clearly it was about more than head count; it was about drawing a line. Some of Kavanagh’s supporters wonder if the move was too precipitous. Others, however, note that subtlety has been tried before, and chiefs have stubbornly resisted.

In a liberal city of great diversity, the department is 73 percent white men, down from 92 percent 20 years ago. Out of 352 battalion chiefs, 344 are white; one is a woman. (The Police Department is 42 percent white and 80 percent male.)

If the rebels thought they could force Mayor Eric Adams to dump Kavanagh by making it seem as though the department was spiraling out of control and that public safety was in danger, they seem to have misread the mayor, who has put women in charge of all three uniformed departments — police, fire and sanitation — and who is known for sticking with his people.

Adams made a show of support by walking with his commissioner — as well as Hodgens — in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

Image
Kavanagh with Mayor Eric Adams, second from left; John Hodgens, right; and Joe Pfeifer at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.Credit...Yuki Iwamura/Associated Press

“Commissioner Kavanagh has promoted a culture of leadership, accountability and performance within the F.D.N.Y.,” the mayor said in a statement to me. “She has my full support.”

At their side on St. Patrick’s Day was Joe Pfeifer, who left a gig at Columbia University to become Kavanagh’s top deputy. Pfeifer was the first senior fire chief to arrive at ground zero on Sept. 11. His younger brother, Kevin, a lieutenant with Engine Company 33 in the Bowery, died in the north tower after Joe Pfeifer ordered him and hundreds of other firefighters up the stairs to rescue anyone they could find.

I Zoomed with Chief Pfeifer on his first morning back in the department, while colleagues lined up outside his office to see him.

Asked if this firestorm was simply a case of misogyny, Pfeifer said other commissioners had made major staff changes, but none got the pushback Kavanagh did. “I’ve never experienced anything like that in my entire career,” he said.

Pfeifer told me that he did not see how any of the mutineers could be part of the team going forward. “I think people can disagree,” he said, “but they can’t go out on their own and make their own rules. I think every fire, every major medical emergency, we hold to that, that there’s somebody in charge; we call it an incident commander. Well, in an agency, we call that person the commissioner.”

“What I was told by a battalion chief is that what occurred lessened their authority in the field,” he said. If Hodgens and Esposito could do what they did at headquarters, he added, “why not an entire firehouse says, I want to be transferred?”

Although Hodgens and Esposito claim they were not consulted about the demotions, Pfeifer said that Kavanagh did talk to the two chiefs about shaking up the leadership team.

“You discuss things with people ahead of time,” Pfeifer said, “and then you take action when you think it’s necessary.”

He said fresh blood in the upper ranks will invigorate the department. “There’s a lot of very experienced people in the field that we can bring up, that may even have more experience than some of the people that want to self-demote.”

Kavanagh was more opaque. “I would just say that the way forward is whatever is best for the entire department,” she said, adding: “I would like to dispel any notion that it’s, for me, personal. I put my personal feelings aside when I walk in here.”

Two lawsuits filed by chiefs, however, seem personal. The first, dismissed out of hand by U.S. District Court Judge Rachel Kovner, claimed their demotions caused “a grave risk” to the city and firefighters. A second suit accused the commissioner of ageism.

Regina Wilson, a firefighter who is president of the Vulcan Society, said she was not sorry to see the three chiefs demoted. “Black firefighters are not crying no river for them,” she said.

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“You’re coming into work and you already got to make sure that you don’t die that day. Now you got to come into work with the mind-set that you’re fighting against ridicule, racism and sexism,” Regina Wilson said of the Fire Department’s white male culture.Credit...Elianel Clinton for The New York Times

More strikingly, she thinks Kavanagh should not have gotten the top job in the first place. In her opinion, Kavanagh, as deputy commissioner and acting commissioner, did not do enough to diversify the department or make firehouses less hostile toward women and Black firefighters.

Wilson said “we haven’t seen the needle move” in the way they want, despite a settlement of a lawsuit brought by the Department of Justice under George W. Bush in 2007 that set up a court-appointed monitor and ordered the department to pay nearly $100 million to women and members of minorities who were stymied in their hope of being hired.

“You’re coming into work and you already got to make sure that you don’t die that day,” she said. “Now you got to come into work with the mind-set that you’re fighting against ridicule, racism and sexism.”

Does Kavanagh agree that racism is still a problem in the department?

“Yes, very much so,” she said.

Has it diversified too slowly?

“I think you’re seeing that diversity come onto the job,” she said. “It will be a long time until it’s percolated through all of the ranks. That’s just a reality of Civil Service.”

Curiously, given the opposition she has faced in her five months on the job, her thesis for her master’s of public administration at Columbia, titled “The Poisoned Water-Cooler: Workplace Gossip as a Lever of Power,” examined the role of gossip and rumor in organizations that are clinging to the status quo and the harmful effect that has on female leaders.

It was at Columbia, which hosts the F.D.N.Y. Officers Management Institute, that she met some of her closest advisers, whom her detractors call “the Columbia cabal,” saying that her inner circle isolates her too much from the chiefs.

Another source of disdain from her opponents has been her background in politics. She worked on the 2012 Obama campaign in Pennsylvania and then Bill de Blasio’s mayoral campaign. She served as a special assistant to Mayor de Blasio before joining the department in the office that oversaw the press shop.

“I don’t know really what they mean,” Kavanagh said, when I noted that people in the department refer to her “P.R.” background. “That doesn’t describe the career I had working for unions and elected officials and nonprofits and doing grass-roots organizing and really understanding how to run operations and to jump into organizations and say: ‘Here’s how you can make your organization better. Here’s how you can achieve this goal.’ This feels like the training that actually all executives have in some way, shape or form. Mine just happens to have been in politics.”

Despite that background, Kavanagh said the hardest part of her job is facing the public. She hired a coach and took a public speaking class at Columbia to get more comfortable.

Image
Kavanagh comforting relatives of Firefighter Timothy Klein at his funeral last April. He died when a ceiling collapsed when he was fighting a house fire.Credit...Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Associated Press

“I know people say they’re shy,” she said. “But I was intensely shy.” On Instagram, she shared the story of flunking her interview for kindergarten admission because she refused to speak. “I don’t want to speak for the sake of speaking,” she told me. “I still don’t relish it.”

As the first woman in charge, she said, she gets “a lot of different advice like, ‘Oh, you should be tough’ or ‘You should never show your feeling.’ I just think that’s not right.” She explained that “there are really awful moments in the Fire Department. We lost people that we love in the line of duty. We go to tragic events, where people have died. I feel quite comfortable showing my emotions in that moment.”

Working in a hypermasculine culture, she wants to get rid of the toxic element that leads to bullying and cruelty. “Bullying of any kind is completely off the table,” she said bluntly in the leaked tape of her meeting with the staff chiefs. “I will not tolerate it.”

But she also sees the need to nurture the alpha streak, among male and female firefighters, that makes them willing to jump into a fire and dangle out of 20th-story windows.

Her broader goals are increasing safety and reducing fire deaths, eliminating dangers of lithium ion batteries for electric bikes and getting state-of-the-art respirator technology.

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Credit...Jasmine Clarke for The New York Times

In her free time, Kavanagh likes to watch campy horror movies, a trait she got from her mother. She also loves to pop into firehouses, sometimes during a run on a weekend, and tries to train with different units, like the dive team, because she’s a swimmer, or a unit that practices rappelling off a firehouse. Married once, she says she’s now “single, but not available,” and has no children.

Outside her office is a wall full of framed photos of all of New York’s fire commissioners. There are 33 men, the earliest bearded and mustachioed from a century and a half ago — and at the very end, a smiling Laura Kavanagh.

“I love this place,” she said. “The mission is worth fighting for and nothing can change my mind about that.”

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