The Fire at AFD

Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr cheerfully engages a department aflame with labor, race, and gender politics

The Fire at AFD
Photo by John Anderson

On a rainy weekday in September, Austin Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr is sitting in her office. Apart from books and binders, memorabilia line the bookshelf – plaques, accolades, and a squadron of toy fire trucks – and atop the shelves sit fire helmets from her past positions in different cities. Two enormous, gold-plated commemorative fire axes grace the opposite wall.

On this busy day, Kerr is recording a video greeting for the River City Youth Foundation, an organization that provides educational opportunities for underserved children. Congratulating the group for decades of service, she finishes up strong: "I'm an example of how you can be anything you wanna be. ... Never give up your dreams." She adds, "When you're 18, think about joining the Austin Fire Department!"

Kerr is indeed a vivid example of how you can be anything you want to be – a trailblazer in a change-resistant, male-dominated field. But her brief tenure here, beginning in February, hasn't allowed room for much self-congratulation. Virtually as soon as she was sworn in, controversy erupted: first in the form of staffing policies ... then promotions ... then budgeting worries ... on and on, troubles large and small dogging her agenda, down to topics as comparatively trifling as the department's logo redesign.

Leading a public safety department in the nation's 15th-largest city is undoubtedly a difficult challenge. And the Austin Fire Depart­ment, currently operating without a union contract, under increasing fiscal constraints and a City Council mandate to diversify the ranks, certainly poses its own challenges. But Kerr's rocky reception poses challenges of its own: How much of the blowback that she's received has been of her own making? And how much might be grounded in reactions to her gender, departmental politics, or more?

Primary Search

"Challenges? There's no challenges!" Kerr exclaims. "Opportunities!" It's of a piece with Kerr's relentlessly upbeat, motivated personality. It's frankly hard to believe this vegetarian, grandmother, and fourth-generation firefighter shuns caffeine – but her energy is all natural.

That enthusiasm must have helped her in 2008, when the city was going through the circuitous process of selecting a new fire chief. Her predecessor, J.J. Adame, served for a scant two years before resigning. That spring, a memo surfaced from Assistant City Manager Michael McDonald, giving Adame 45 days to improve his performance and calling out "many instances where I think you have deferred to your subordinates in situations where you needed to take a lead role as fire chief." Despite some efforts at improvement, Adame resigned within the city's time frame, and a national search for Austin's next chief began.

At the time, Kerr was fire chief of Little Rock, Ark., having spent some 25 years in public safety. In 1983, after working for more than a decade as a coach and teacher, she joined the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Fire-Rescue Department, where she steadily rose in the ranks – engine driver, lieutenant, battalion chief, division chief, and ultimately deputy fire chief. At the end of 2003, she accepted the chief position in Little Rock. Some four years later, when the much larger city of Austin began its search (the AFD has approximately 1,100 firefighters to Little Rock's 400), she applied for the job.

"This is my second time to leave an organization and strike out for another opportunity," she says. "You always hope that it's going to be exciting and that you'll be welcomed; you certainly don't want to go somewhere you don't feel welcome, or where you couldn't make a difference. ... I came here with that in mind – that it was a great opportunity. I was excited about the challenges that did lie ahead."

And the challenges began shortly after Kerr arrived.

Flexing Muscle

In February 2009, when Kerr became chief, the city was in the middle of a financial emergency. With plummeting sales-tax proceeds, a $20 million budget cut was required, and no department would be spared.

The linchpin of proposed cuts at AFD – under way before Kerr's arrival – was known as "flexible staffing." Nationwide "best practices" call for four-person staffing on fire trucks, the better to facilitate what's known as the "two-in/two-out" rule: That is, when responding to a fire, at least two firefighters enter the blaze, while two others stay outside, remaining in voice or visual contact with the two inside. A white paper from the International Association of Fire Fighters describing two-in/two-out – a federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration mandate – says the rule "may be one of the most important safety advances for firefighters in this decade."

The flexible staffing proposal would have allowed engines to respond with only three firefighters – for a very few engines, but, should one respond to a fire and the crew needed to enter the structure, they would have to wait for another engine to arrive. For entertaining the notion at all, Kerr was pilloried by the fire union.

"I can't think of anything that would get us off on the wrong foot more so than something like that," says Stephen Truesdell, president of the Austin Firefighters Association. Calling four-person staffing "one of our most important issues that we've been working on for decades," Truesdell says he's cognizant of the budget troubles Kerr faced upon her arrival. Still, he says: "I feel her ultimate responsibility is to advocate for what is best for the firefighters, and the Fire Department. ... She has to make a very clear case for why it's a bad idea and what the potential consequences are. And we just don't feel like that happened."

Truesdell says cutting staffing – instead of more comprehensive budget adjustments – "is easy. It's the easiest fix; it doesn't require anything but to not pay as many firefighters to work today as we did yesterday." That may be true in the broadest sense, but Kerr says that the main reason staffing represents an "easy" budget fix is because salaries at the AFD (as in most departments) consume so much of the budget. "Ninety-two percent of the Fire Department budget goes to personnel," Kerr says. "Seven percent goes to commodities, fixed costs – utilities, fuel, those kinds of things. There's not a whole lot of money to come up with there, so, it seems you're gonna have to impact people in some way." More specifically, Kerr says she "totally understood" the anger at the flexible staffing proposal, "and I totally support four-person staffing. But I will say it even today, if I had to choose between shutting down a fire station and taking the unit down to three people on an occasional basis, I'll take it down to three."

Combat Operations

The flexible staffing proposal was no sooner scuttled then another controversy flared: Kerr's selection of assistant chiefs. She named Lt. Richard Davis to lead Professional Services and Lt. Matt Orta to lead Combat Operations Support, for several reasons, she says, but definitely important – to city management as well as to Kerr herself – was diversifying the department's upper echelon (Davis is African-American; Orta is Hispanic). However, Kerr is quick to say that the principle and potential effects of diversity are more important than someone's specific ethnicity or gender. "They bring the things that are important to me as assistant chiefs, and that was passion and commitment and loyalty, the ability to communicate. I don't want somebody that's always going to agree with me. I want people that have different opinions, and I think it's important within our executive team to have that diversity of opinion, that diversity of culture – the diversities that are obvious in regard to our gender and our race, but also the things that everybody brings to the table."

City management may have seconded Kerr's judgment, but not everyone in the department was pleased. While the Austin Firefighters Association's Truesdell allows that assistant chief isn't a position subject to contractual promotion rules but one appointed at the chief's discretion, there was still frustration among those passed over for the job. "The frustration was the fact that there was a lack of any process, or any opportunity for folks to ask to be considered for those positions," he says. "The decision was made – 'Here ya go; here are the two new assistant chiefs' – and there were lots of folks who felt like they should've had an opportunity to be considered." (See "Contract Kumbaya: The City and the Firefighters.")

An additional pressure was also affecting Kerr's proposal, as she simultaneously sought to expand the number of assistant chiefs from four to five, partly in order to tap battalion chief (and Anglo male) Harry Evans for a fifth position – a move that would require City Coun­cil approval. With a massive budget deficit anticipated for 2009-2010, the request was temporarily shelved while council worked through the rest of its budget options. Council members struggled to explain that the postponement was not a knock on Kerr's staffing plans, but instead reflected the financial strain of adding another position. It was an undeniably tough sell – and it didn't help that on the day the proposal came before council in May, Kerr seemed unprepared and needed administrative help in answering questions from the dais.

"It was just horrible timing," says Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez, a former firefighter and past president of the Austin Firefighters Association. "We were in the middle of a [initially estimated] $40 million shortfall in the budget. ... I thought it was disrespectful to the rest of the work force, and to the citizens of Austin, to be asking for increased positions on your command staff and increases in costs at a time when we were deliberating how to close this budget shortfall."

Moreover, Martinez also felt flummoxed by Kerr's comments to council that the extra position was part of her efforts to add diversity. "You say you want to diversify, and you have an African-American and a Hispanic candidate; why not just appoint them now?" Martinez asks, and wait until after the budget's resolution to create the fifth position. That's in fact what eventually happened: In late September, Kerr proposed a staff reorganization to council that created the fifth assistant position, elevating Evans, without generating additional costs.

"You always pick your battles," Kerr says of her council skirmish. "Sometimes it's time to withdraw, regroup, and then try to move forward and find a better way or different way to accomplish your goals." As for her selection of Davis and Orta, she concedes "it wasn't a popular decision, because I didn't select anybody from the immediate ranks just below assistant chief – but I'm allowed to do that, by God!" Kerr stands by her decision. "Several months later, you see the growth and development that has occurred in both those assistant chiefs. ... That's the whole point of succession planning and preparing for the future. So I hope when I retire and I leave the Austin Fire Department, the hardest decision for the city manager is going to be, 'Oh my gosh, which one of these people do I choose?'"

The Evolution of a Fire Chief

Kerr's departmental troubles didn't end with the decisions over the assistant chiefs – since then, she's wrestled with disputes over additional proposed budget cuts, the department's safe-driving policy, rules governing policy when speaking about the department (updated for the social media age), and more. It's almost as if "controversy" has taken on a life of its own, snowballing through the force of its own momentum.

Or is there something more at play?

Simmering in the background, but not always acknowledged, is the intriguing but confounding question of what role Kerr's gender may have played in all this departmental give-and-take. Race and gender politics are no stranger to firehouses across the nation, but female chiefs are: Kerr and San Francisco Chief Joanne Hayes-White are the only two women to preside over a department of AFD's size. The hints of a gender-based backlash are oblique but persistent: resistance to her assistant chief picks, talk of a "reverse discrimination" lawsuit from firefighters passed over for the promotions, and plenty of anonymous online criticism. After Kerr told an Austin American-Statesman reporter, "I don't think I had a honeymoon period" – a commonplace euphemism for the glow surrounding a new official – she says she "made the mistake of going in and reading citizen comments [on the Statesman website]. Somebody wrote, 'What does she think this is, a wedding or a marriage?'" With that, she says she asked herself, "Oh, why am I reading these?"

While it's hard to confirm backlash against Kerr's gender, it's also hard to deny. "It's obviously gonna be an issue," says Truesdell. "She's working in an environment that is 95 percent male – and that's a good number, compared to a lot of departments." Still, he says, "I don't think it has had any significant impact" on department and union reaction to her decisions, "because these decisions are ones that would be unpopular regardless of gender, race, or ethnicity. They're just things that are going to be viewed as unfavorable by firefighters."

"The cliché that I used for years is: In many instances, our knuckles are still on the ground in the fire service," says Martinez. "We've just taken a really long time to evolve and get with the program, so to speak. And we still are behind, in terms of women firefighters and minority firefighters." He says Kerr's gender shouldn't be an issue, and maybe wasn't, initially. "But I think now, because of the friction and because of the proposed policies that have created so much resistance – it's unfortunate, but now I'm starting to hear that, when we never heard that in the beginning. It wasn't about her gender; it was, 'We hope she's a good leader; we hope she's a strong leader.' But I do hear that – I do hear that she's gonna always struggle, for different reasons. And it's been mentioned that gender may be a factor. ... It shouldn't be that way, but that is part of the problem we need to deal with in the Fire Department."

"Yes, I think that it is different being a woman, and I think people scrutinize what I want to do more closely," Kerr says. "They scrutinize who you are more closely, just because you are a woman. And I think that there's some opinion out there, that people feel like I have been treated differently than any of my predecessors, who are all men."

Still, Kerr says, "certainly, life has evolved in 27 years" since she first joined the Fort Lauderdale force, since her days as the only woman in a firehouse – she had to tape up a sign reading "Occupied" over the windows to the shower room when she needed to clean up after a call. Diversifying the department – having "people that are representative of our community cultures working in our organization" – is one of the reasons she was tapped to lead the Fire Department in the first place, regardless of the backlash.

"Diversity is never simple, and it's never not important," she says. To that end, she's hoping the current labor contract negotiations will eventually result in a more diverse work force. "If you don't hire the people that are different, then you can't promote people who are different, because they're just not there. It has to start at that sort of bottom level, that hiring level."

White Shirts

If there's ever a crucible for dispute, it's a fire department. Start with a collection of individualists potentially risking their lives, add race and gender politics, labor disputes, and, in a bum economy, budget cuts threatening to impact services. Is it surprising that the city hounded out J.J. Adame after two years, or that his predecessor, Gary Warren, received an overwhelming vote of no confidence (569 of 650) from the firefighters union?

Kerr stepped into strong crosscurrents when she arrived – no union contract, a budget deficit – but maybe none stronger than disputes between management and the rank and file over the most effective use of stretched department resources. The reaction to Kerr's two major tests – flexible staffing and the assistant chief assignments – at their core reflect conflict between labor and management.

Truesdell cites a disconnect between upper-level management and frontline responders in the way Kerr's policies have been drafted and implemented. Referring to the flexible staffing battle, he says, "These policies come out, and it's just obvious that they weren't given due consideration, because the way they're implemented totally runs contrary to the most efficient operation of the Fire Department." Recalling the flexible staffing proposal in council chambers, Martinez says, "I think there were nine white shirts" – assistant chiefs, division chiefs, and so on, in their starched white uniform shirts. "Her executive team were all sitting on the front row of council, and their best recommendation for a midyear budget adjustment to save money was to cut the lowest-ranked firefighter staffing member, [the one] responding to the citizens. All these guys – and gals – making over $100,000 a year, driving a vehicle paid for by the citizens of Austin, and your best option is to go to the lowest rank service provider to the citizen?"

By definition, certain tensions exist between labor and management, but Trues­dell says better communication would begin to diminish it. Part of the tension comes from the current lack of a union contract; the expired one called for formal, quarterly meetings with the chief. However, Truesdell says, "By not having a contract we're not prevented from doing that," but "we haven't done that," either. "Regular communication," he says, "and a process where we, as the employee representatives, are allowed regular input before policy and programs are implemented" would improve the working relationship, he says, "with the understanding that it's simply that, input. Ultimately, the fire chief retains the authority to run the department, but it's good to know what the rank-and-file perspective is."

"You certainly want to have good labor-management relationships, and the best one is one of open communication," Kerr says. She feels she has a "very good relationship" with Truesdell. "There's a couple times I'll go talk to him, pull him aside, and say, 'Hey, I have to give you a heads-up.' ... I trust him, he trusts me, and I think that that's a good thing." But, she says, a good relationship means the ability to "agree to disagree" while still searching for consensus, "because consensus doesn't mean we all agree, it just means we've all come to an understanding that this can be the position that we can take."

Kerr feels she's done a good job of garnering support outside of the department. It seems her gender, which may be a challenge inside the organization, helps her outside of it. "I feel very welcome here. Invariably, when someone sees me, and they do recognize me, they thank me for being here, that they're excited, particularly if it's another woman; they're always very excited that Austin hired a woman as their fire chief."

Adrenaline and Change

With her high-profile position and energetic personality, Kerr's drawn comparisons to another recent public safety hire: Austin Police Department Chief Art Acevedo. "An officer of mine told me that I reminded him of a type A personality on steroids," Acevedo says, adding he and Kerr are "two type A personalities on steroids. It makes things a lot of fun." More specifically, he adds: "Any [administrator] is going to have ups and downs, like she's had, but at the end of the day I know that she's a person that really cares about the men and women that work there. ... I look forward to working with her in the next years." But while Acevedo basked in his honeymoon for a year before a new policy for blood draws on drunken-driving suspects started dulling his public luster, Kerr never enjoyed the glow. And Acevedo repainted and rebranded the entire police force, unchallenged, while Kerr's simple change of the Austin Fire Department logo created howls of protest, albeit brief.

It's tempting to think Kerr's problems have been mistakes of timing, faced with tough choices immediately upon her arrival, without a chance to build her base of support, and being thrust into long-standing departmental disputes. And her reception has certainly been shaped by her gender to some degree. But regardless of the various forces at work, can Kerr continue to lead a department that's difficult to manage even under better circumstances? "What I see is a struggle, a constant struggle," says Martinez. "Proposal after proposal after proposal. I don't know how long that can sustain someone in that position. It's going to make it more and more difficult moving forward."

"I think firefighters are the same all over the country, maybe even somewhat all over the world, in regard to our personalities, our types," says Kerr. "We all are adrenaline junkies; we resist change – although I'm sorta one of those unique people that really likes change." She cites the number of Blackberrys and hairdos she's gone through since she's been here (four) as proof.

Coming to Austin has undoubtedly been the biggest change in her career. She's still getting used to it, and we are too. "When you come [to some place new], the reality is it takes longer for you," Kerr reflects. "You're not walking back into where everybody knows you. So you have to build those relationships. You have to start at ground zero again in that relationship building you left behind. ... You always think, 'Oh, I'm so excited'; you know where you left, and you kinda think you're gonna start where you left. And you don't, you have to go back and start over and build those relationships, and get to know the organization, get to know the people. And they need to get to know you."

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