Her grandfather and father both served as fire chiefs in Johnson County. And when Karrie Clinkinbeard arrives to a scene of burning embers, she’s also greeted with nods of respect.
Donning a hard hat and steel-toed boots, she surveys the damage. The Olathe resident is following in her family’s footsteps, but along a different path.
She’s not a firefighter. She’s a lawyer.
Clinkinbeard is a lawyer who specializes at Armstrong Teasdale LLP in fires and explosions.
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Along with other attorneys in her field, she handles fire and explosion litigation, as well as cases relating to electrocution and chemical release.
She was drawn to the field early on in her career because it felt like home.
“Rushing into a burning building wasn’t ever something I wanted to do, even though I admired my dad a lot,” Clinkinbeard said. “But I grew up in the fire community, where it’s one huge family. Everyone looks out for each other and there’s so much love and support. So, I think it’s pretty cool I wound up being a part of it professionally.”
Her family legacy isn’t the only reason she’s making waves in the fire law industry, however.
In 2004, Clinkinbeard became a certified fire and explosion investigator through the National Association of Fire Investigators to sharpen her expertise.
Understanding the science and logistics behind the different causes of fire has improved her professional credibility and given her a competitive edge when cross-examining witnesses. It also helps out on fire scenes.
“No matter if I’m in Kansas City or investigating a case in western Kansas, I speak their language,” she said. “I’m able to ask the right questions and get information other people might not know to look for.”
She also sits on the National Fire Protection Association’s 1033 technical committee, which oversees standard qualifications for fire investigators.
Clinkinbeard doesn’t use all of her expertise to her own advantage. She shares her expertise with the fire community.
The busy attorney travels the country training fire investigators on how to document investigations and offering important tips on how to testify in court.
One of the proudest moments in her career is the first time she taught a fire investigation course at the National Fire Academy in Maryland, where her father trained years ago. Sitting on display, amid patches from around the world, is the Overland Park Fire Department patch her dad handed over in the 1980s.
“Seeing the bricks with the inscribed names of fallen firefighters, and the fact the academy is right down the road from Gettysburg and across from Camp David, I mean, for a Kansas girl, that gives me goosebumps,” she said, her eyes lighting up. “It’s a very special place.”
Her passion for the fire industry and her willingness to go above and beyond in her career impresses her father, Dennis Meyers, who is currently the assistant chief for Johnson County Fire District No. 1, which covers Gardner and Edgerton, as well as southwest Johnson County.
“What’s really exciting for me is that a lot of my peers and good friends work with Karrie and they have the utmost respect for her, which makes me extremely proud,” he said. “She may look like the sweetest little thing, but she’s ruthless in the courtroom. She’s amazing at her job.”
Meyers also said he was surprised, yet thrilled, when his daughter ended up joining the family profession.
He caught the firefighting bug as a kid when his father was the fire chief for the Merriam fire department, from 1951 to 1969. Back then, it was an all-volunteer force and Meyers used to ride out with his dad to blazes and watch in awe as flames were diminished.
“It’s an exciting job because you’re racing down the street through red lights and with sirens screaming, but it’s also very rewarding because you’re saving people’s lives,” Meyers said, who lives out in the country near Spring Hill.
He eventually served 31 years with the Overland Park Fire Department, retiring as its fire chief in 2005.
During that portion of his career, he witnessed the massive growth of Overland Park and helped create the Fire Training Center, near 124th and Antioch Road.
“Overland Park is a pretty amazing city and I feel like I was part of its growth, since I got to see the high rises go up,” Meyers said, fondly. “In a way, I feel like I’m watching Gardner go through the same thing right now, as more warehouses are being built. It’s like déjà vu.”
Clinkinbeard’s uncle was a firefighter, her stepmother is a firefighter, and her 19-year-old nephew is pursuing a career as a firefighter as well.
She is proud to come from a family who risks their lives to save others. Being a firefighter is a selfless act, she said, because as people run from a fire, firefighters are the ones running towards the danger.
This week, that sentiment especially resonated in the Kansas City area when two firefighters lost their life on the job.
Like many other people, Clinkinbeard and her dad were glued to their television screens in sadness earlier this week when it was revealed Larry Leggio and John Mesh, both Kansas City firefighters, were killed at the scene of a massive fire at Prospect and Independence avenues.
It was a tragedy that hit their family hard.
“I personally didn’t know those guys, but seeing their chief talk so emotionally about them, I just can’t help but shed a tear,” Meyers said. “It breaks my heart and it reminds us that every fire we go to, there’s a risk. This job is about making a difference out there and making the community safer.”
While she may not have wanted to run into flames as a kid, she grew up wanting to help people on another level.
“Being a lawyer is more than just standing in a courtroom or being buried under a pile of paperwork,” she said. “You’re also a counselor because your client is going through a difficult process since there may be a serious injury or a fatality involved. There’s always a personal aspect to every case, whether you’re working with a major corporation or an individual involved in a lawsuit.”
When she’s not working or traveling, Clinkinbeard enjoys going to Royals games with her family and going to her two kids’ sporting activities.
She also has a sneaking suspicion her family’s fire legacy isn’t about to end any time soon.
“My 6-year-old son is obsessed with firefighters and police officers,” she said. “He loves visiting his grandfather at the fire station and peeking into fire trucks. I definitely will not be surprised if he becomes a firefighter one day.”
Jennifer Bhargava: firstname.lastname@example.org