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Interim fire chief, first woman to lead KCFD in 150 years, hopes more will follow

As the first woman to lead the Kansas City Fire Department, Donna Maize doesn’t shy away from being a role model and an inspiration to girls and young women who may consider a career like hers.

“They will be able to see that from a young age, and realize that just like a police officer or any other nontraditional female role that there are people out there that look like them,” Maize said Monday on her first day as fire chief.

Maize, a 26-year veteran of the fire department, has been named interim chief. She replaces Gary Reese, who announced last month that he was stepping down after serving less than two years as fire chief.

Maize is the first woman to lead the fire department in any capacity since its inception more than 150 years ago.

Her appointment represents a milestone for a department that has been known for blatant sexual harassment and abusive treatment of women firefighters.

In 2001 and 2002, juries awarded verdicts in favor of two female firefighters who complained of sex discrimination. More recently, the department has faced racial discrimination lawsuits and two members have been brought up on criminal charges.

Maize said she realizes the challenges department continues to face.

“I believe in people and setting that clear expectation and setting that tone that everyone has a role to play; it’s no role is too small and no task is too big and everyone has the equal opportunity to engage and be heard and develop to their fullest potential,” she said.

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas congratulated Maize on Twitter.

“[Kansas City] is lucky to have you and we’re proud of her stewardship of some important issues for the future of our community.”

Maize earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Central Missouri and joined the fire department in 1992. She has worked in the training academy, served as the hazardous materials unit battalion chief, special operations deputy fire chief and later assistant chief responsible for fleet services.

She was named assistant fire chief in 2014. In that role, Maize managed a $166.6 million budget.

Maize most recently served as an assistant city manager for public safety, where she oversaw nearly $40 million in upgrades to replace outdated fire trucks and ambulances. She also upgraded three fire department facilities to gender-neutral standards.

“As I came through the fire department I decided to strategically place my career through opportunities that opened up and taking some of the nontraditional roles that usually aren’t as popular,” Maize said.

Girls and young women often lack the exposure to some careers in public service, Maize said, and she hopes to help change that.

As a child, Maize said her father, Curt Lake, who had been a fire captain before he retired, took Maize and her siblings to various fire stations. It was only natural for Maize to one day become a firefighter.

Maize said she had the opportunity to battle several fires with her father. The two once found themselves inside a burning attic.

“He said he has heard everything in the world but one thing he has never heard is the other person on the line behind him say, “daddy it’s hot up here,” Maize said with a laugh. “He likes to share that story. It keeps me humble and grounded.”

Maize said she has benefited from a corps of mentors who have helped her navigate a fire department that has not always been accepting of minority or female firefighters.

A federal lawsuit filed last year alleged that African-American firefighters were discriminated against when seeking promotions. In 2017 the department lost a similar lawsuit, resulting in a $356,694 award to a black firetruck driver.

In the past year, a fire captain has been indicted on charges of illegal arms sales and a firefighter has been charged with body slamming and punching a woman during a road rage incident.

A national search is underway for a new chief. Maize has indicated that she’s not planning to apply for the job.

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Glenn E. Rice covers crime, courts and breaking news for The Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 1988. Rice is a Kansas City native and a graduate of the University of Central Missouri.
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