Cheryl Horvath, division chief of operations at the Northwest (AZ) Fire District, addressed the challenges of fire service leadership during her FDIC 2010 keynote presentation. She discussed how she first got involved in firefighting and the obstacles she faced early on as a woman in the fire service.
Horvath admitted that she first considered the fire service for the wrong reasons–good pay and benefits, a retirement package, and so on. After six weeks of fire academy, however, she was hooked. Horvath faced some difficulty when she arrived on the job, an experience she did not have when working previous jobs. She learned early on to learn, work hard, take classes, and keep her mouth shut for that first year.
She cites the notion of “leaders as followers” as the first step of her concept of “purposeful leadership.” She took on numerous responsibilities in an effort to shut up her detractors and prove she was capable, almost to a fault. Horvath admitted she did not want to show any sign of weakness.
Three years into her fire service career, Horvath’s father, who worked in engineering at General Motors (GM), passed away. This was a significant event in her life, as her father was a role model. She noted that, at her father’s funeral, she met of his female co-workers, who told her how her father helped open the door for them at GM. This inspired her to hope to help open a door for someone else, and shortly after she was promoted to company officer. This led her to note the second step in “purposeful leadership,” namely leaders leading people. She focused on her company to ensure they were well-trained enough to bring the best service possible to their citizens and that they all got home.
After serving for eight years as a company officer in Urbana, Illinois, Horvath accepted a job as battalion chief with the Northwest Fire District in Tucson, Arizona. Although some on the job at that time might have been intimidated by her (as an outsider, a woman, and the head of Women in the Fire Service [WFS]), Horvath dedicated herself to her captains, which was the next step in the idea of purposeful leadership: Leaders leading leaders. She described the challenges of middle management–having to accept decisions handed down from on high that she didn’t always agree with, and sell them to the rank and file.
After the department’s reorganization, Horvath talked about how her new position as division chief of training let her get back to the basics of firefighter training as well as gave her time for her position in the WFS. She later took on the role division chief of operations, where for the past nine months she has been supervising seven battalion chiefs as they manage 10 fire stations and two battalions. She tied this into the final step on the “purposeful leadership” ladder: leaders leading organizations.
Horvath is president of the International Association of Women in Fire & Emergency Services (iWomen, formerly the WFS) and host of the Fire Engineering podcast, “The Connection.”