Kerrtains at AFD

Fire chief to leave for Florida

Rhoda Mae Kerr swearing in in 2009 (Photo by John Anderson)

In a brief staff memo issued on Feb. 7, Austin Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr abruptly announced that she'd be ending her nearly 10-year career in Austin. Effective July 1, Kerr will retire from the city and return to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., to take over as chief of the fire rescue unit she first worked for when she began her career in 1983. Kerr retires from AFD as the first woman to run it, and will also hold that distinction in her new post.

"Although the decision to leave Austin did not come easily, many of you know that Fort Lauderdale is where I began my career in the fire service and it holds a special place in my heart," Kerr wrote. "So when the opportunity arose to return there and close out my career as the leader of that organization, I just couldn't say no."

Kerr moved to Austin in 2008, when she was hired by former City Manager Marc Ott as a chief who would prioritize the department's relationship with the community. And through her nine years at the helm (she was sworn in on Jan. 30, 2009) she proved that she could play the role. Kerr is often seen out and about at community events, and through her Twitter account (which, fittingly, won a Chronicle "Best of Austin" award last fall) could be seen posing and generally yukking it up with other officials in the city's public safety sphere.

Some folks around the stations are ready for the change.

During her reign, the department instituted four-person staffing on its fire trucks, reformed its sexual harassment policy, and added a Wildfire Division after the devastating Labor Day fires in 2011 engulfed more than 1,700 homes and 40,000 acres across Bastrop and Travis counties. "We all owe Chief Kerr a huge debt for keeping Austin safe and for being a wonderful and innovative change agent," Mayor Steve Adler said in a statement following her announcement. "We'll miss her leadership, and I'll miss working with her."

Kerr said in her retirement letter that she'll most miss the people who work at AFD, who she said are the best in the business. But clearly some folks around the stations are ready for the change. Kerr's tenure has been marred by Department of Justice investigations into the department's hiring practices, and a rocky relationship with the Austin Firefighters Association that led to two censures in two years. That dynamic was perfectly portrayed in AFA President Bob Nicks' letter to membership, wherein he needled Kerr for taking credit for the Wildfire Division and new truck staffing model.

Nicks wrote that the union would continue to work against certain policies implemented under Kerr, and those who make efforts to continue them. "As always, the Austin Firefighters Association stands ready to support members of management that support the firefighters and will focus our efforts to stand against those who continue regressive discipline, over punishment and the elimination of firefighters from their career based on injury or disease," he wrote. Despite the harsh tone, Nicks emphasized that his disagreements with Kerr were never personal. "I think she's a fine person," he told me early this week. "I think she can be funny. I wish her no ill will. It's always focused on the issue, not the personality."

Those issues began in 2009, when Kerr was forced to "clarify" the department's safe driving policy shortly after a revision. The department's updated hiring practices, conceived in 2012, drew a consent decree from the DOJ in 2014, which still affects recruitment. (The city cut the amount of time given to complete the written application exam in half, which had an adverse impact on African-American and Hispanic candidates. See "AFD Hiring: Smoke or Fire?," Feb. 28, 2014.) That was also the year that Kerr received her first censure from the Austin chapter of the International Assoc­iation of Firefighters for the policies that led to the decree. Two years later, the AFA voted to censure Kerr again, this time for, among other things, her fitness requirements and disciplinary reprimands. More recently, last summer she was chided by City Council for having to ask for additional overtime funds, which sparked a probe by the city auditor.

Despite those controversies, Kerr called her decade in Austin one of the most special times in her life: "I will treasure it always." Nicks also appeared ready to press ahead, noting that AFD morale is at one of the lowest points he's seen, but that he's hopeful the new administration will improve it. "This is a pivotal time in the department," he said. "We can really get things set straight."

The timing of Kerr's announcement also means new City Manager Spencer Cronk, who began work on Monday and is already dealing with a pile of vacant city leadership positions, will have the chance to install a new chief.

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