New York City

Acting NYC Fire Commissioner makes history

While it’s only an interim job for Laura Kavanagh, she still became the FDNY's first female leader when she took over for Daniel Nigro last month.

Acting New York City Fire Commissioner  Laura Kavanagh and Mayor Eric Adams attend the funeral of Firefighter Jesse Gerhard on Feb. 23, 2022.

Acting New York City Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh and Mayor Eric Adams attend the funeral of Firefighter Jesse Gerhard on Feb. 23, 2022. Ed Reed/ Mayoral Photography Office.

New York City First Deputy Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh became the acting head of the Fire Department of New York with the departure of Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro last month. While it’s only an interim post for Kavanagh as Mayor Eric Adams still decides on who will permanently take over, it remains historic since she was the first woman to serve in the role. 

Kavanagh, 39, is a self-described agent of change who said she has high hopes for seeing more diversity within the department. During her tenure, the de Blasio administration moved to implement the settlement of a long simmering racial discrimination lawsuit brought by the Vulcan Society, the FDNY’s Black affinity group. It also retrofitted the plumbing and floor plans of all of its fire houses to accommodate female firefighters. 

City & State caught up with Kavanagh to discuss her career, what it’s been like for her leading the FDNY and her views on some of the challenges the department is facing. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When you were growing up, what were your career ambitions? 

My original career ambition was to be a veterinarian which is obviously quite different  from what I do now. I can’t really name the year that changed but I was quite an animal lover. I worked on a ranch and a farm when I was a kid. I am a vegetarian. I was very much raised by people who thought you should do good in the world and you should try to make change and make a difference. Once I discovered what was required to become a veterinarian, it might have deterred me, but my orientation and work was always toward activism and community based work. When I came out of college it was volunteering on campaigns. I eventually went into consulting and did work with labor unions and politicians but the theme, even though it was two very different things, was always that I wanted  to do something that would feel good and make a difference at the end of the day.

What did your parents do? 

My mom is a teacher and my dad works for the phone company. My mom came from Flint, Michigan, and her whole family came from General Motors and were in that industry before it collapsed. You definitely can say I came from a union family. My dad’s dad worked for our version of the Long Island Railroad. Very much public servants, very much blue collar union work. 

It’s Women’s History Month and you are the acting Fire Commissioner. Is the qualifier “acting”  a challenge for you?

“It is not a challenge for me. In part, because my feeling is you can’t think of “acting” in your day-to-day job. There is no such thing as “acting” when they call you in the middle of the night, when you have to go to the hospital. There is no such thing as “acting” when you have to go to a graduation and promote people. So, for me I really try to think of my job as what am I supposed to do. What the fire department deserves from me on that front is being the full commissioner. My feeling was I have to do the job as long as I am in it.

Despite recent efforts, the fire department still lags considerably behind the police department in terms of female recruitment and racial diversity. What do you attribute that to? 

I actually went back and studied this before I got here. It was actually the public external efforts to change the police department that started about twenty to twenty five years before the fire department’s. So, if you track them side by side, you can actually see where the police started and how far they got along the way. If we continue on the same trajectory we should be there as well, granted twenty years behind. And that’s tough for us. We want to shorten that gap and try to catch up. 

During the coronavirus pandemic, the FDNY lost firefighters, EMS personnel and civilian employees. The pandemic also impacted the FDNY’s mandatory annual physical when the department’s Bureau of Health Services had to shut down. The fire unions have raised concerns about this and said some members have gone for two years without an exam. Do you share their concerns? 

I share their concerns and I share a broader concern always about the health of our members. This is a very dangerous job but it is not just dangerous at a [fire] incident. The stress is dangerous. Heart attacks are the number one killer of firefighters nationwide. Broadly, stress for both fire and EMS from this work is hard to measure and the potential for PTSD and obviously cancer is something that is much higher among firefighters than the general population. Overall, I am always worried about their health. I very much agree with the unions and we have restarted medicals and are trying to find some creative ways to fit more people through the medical office. 

You inherited a situation where EMS personnel make less than firefighters. They have limited sick time while the firefighters have unlimited sick time.  You made some progress on EMS pay with the last contract. But what are the structural challenges to real parity? 

Economic justice to me is a key issue and to see it in the agency in the future is very important to me. I went to every EMS station at the height of the pandemic in March and April and saw first hand the impact it was having on EMS – the truly brutal long days, with heart attack after heart attack and seeing so many people pass away. That image stuck with me and I couldn’t let it go. We have to do something about this. We certainly are not there yet. Parity is my goal. My most recent work with the last contract doesn’t get us there but I hope it shows a down payment on my commitment because it is the largest increase that they have ever seen in their contract. We want people to make EMS a career.