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Kansas City's First Female Fire Chief Embraces The 'Symbolic' As Well As Service Aspects Of Her Role

Kansas City Fire Department

Donna Maize, who has recently been promoted to serve as the first female fire chief in Kansas City's 150-year history, says the role of the fire department has changed since she joined the force in 1992.

Recently, she said, their service has been morphing into the areas of social service and emergency healthcare.

"In Kansas City, unfortunately, we do have a certain amount of homeless population and kind of those transient people who really don’t have other resources or there's a lot of people that live without healthcare," Maize said.

She said they dial 911 for the care they need.

Maize's institutional memory of the Kansas City Fire Department stretches farther back than her own lengthy career. Her father, Captain Curt Lake, is now retired.

"Seeing how you could help people and really affect someone's life is kind of what drew me to following in his footsteps to join the fire department," said Maize, whose younger brother is a driver for the department at 34th and Paseo.

She said her father allowed her and her three siblings to see what his work was all about — the danger as well as the public service aspects.

She recalled being a teenager and going along with her father to help a man the department frequently received calls about. His only source of heat was a wood-burning stove that vented into the house, so neighbors would see smoke and call for help. Her father used his personal time to assist the man.

Maize sees her role as ensuring that the "people that have the day to day contact and interaction with our residents here in Kansas City have the tools and equipment and training that they need to be able to provide that service no matter what the call is."

Part of that preparedness has to do with training, but she also must navigate the more political component of working with city hall and the finance department to shore up her department's budget for best and safest equipment.

When she began her career, she said she was one of only about 35 women in a total workforce of 980 responders. She said she only occasionally missed having other women nearby. Maize said women and men tend to respond differently to cases involving children or loss of life.

"I think females may have more of a motherly instinct and a protective instinct where they might respond differently than males, and you don't talk about it the same way with your coworkers," she said.

And in terms of serving the public, she knows that diversity in the force is crucial. She said people who need help want to see responders who look like and are able to relate to them, and often that’s not the case.

Maize does see the number of female fire fighters growing, but they're still a minority in the workplace.

"For me, being the first female in this role, it's really symbolic in the sense that it really shows citizens and young women and girls that you can be a leader and you can achieve your goals," Maize said. "If you work hard enough at anything you can be successful."

That's what her father told her: She could do anything she set her mind to, and self-confidence and trust in her own abilities could get her through just about anything.

Donna Maize spoke with KCUR on a recent edition of Central Standard. Listen to the full conversation here.

Follow KCUR contributor Anne Kniggendorf on Twitter, @AnneKniggendorf.

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