On July 1, Rhoda Mae Kerr will pin five brass bugles on the collar of her Fort Lauderdale Fire and Rescue uniform—the number symbolizes her rank, and five is the highest. On that day Kerr will also make history as the department’s first female fire chief in its 106-year history.
Kerr comes from a lineage of firefighters. Her great-grandfather was a firefighter in New York during the horse-drawn era; her grandfather was a volunteer fire chief in New Jersey; and her father was in the state forestry service, a firefighter in that capacity.
Even with her family history, Kerr says joining the fire service didn’t cross her mind until she grew bored as a PE and health teacher at the high school and middle school level.
“I think it’s in my blood,” she says. “It just took a while for it to manifest itself.”
Kerr began her career 30-plus years ago, rising through the ranks at Fort Lauderdale Fire and Rescue to deputy chief. She started her firefighting career on Sept. 26, 1983; Kerr recites the date with no hesitation.
She left in 2004 to be chief in Little Rock, Arkansas. She served there for about five years before moving to Austin, Texas, where she was fire chief for 9.5 years. Kerr was the first female in both positions.
Early on in her career she had few female colleagues, so equipment, gear and fire stations did not accommodate a mixed gender workforce. Kerr remembers feeling like she was scrutinized more closely and expected to do more than her male counterparts in each position she held.
To battle this, Kerr focuses on making the fire service more welcoming to both genders through its language, culture and policy. Because of the reputation she’s established, her peers elected her to serve as president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, causing her to make history again as the first woman in the role. And in December 2016, former President Barack Obama appointed her to the National Infrastructure Advisory Council, which advises the president on issues regarding public safety in terms of critical infrastructure.
Kerr wanted to return to South Florida after she retired. But when the Fort Lauderdale chief announced his retirement, it was an opportunity for her “to close that circle and go back and be the chief where it all started,” she says. Kerr will also work with and mentor the female chief officers at FLFR. “Hopefully when I retire—and it’s not going to be another 10 years—one of those women will be ready to move up and then the legacy can continue,” she says.