Firefighting, Leadership

Woman Has Overcome Bias as Harlan (KY) Fire Chief

Fewer than 4% of all firefighters are women, according to the National Fire Protection Association, and even fewer are leaders in the industry, reports

But the fire chief in the city of Harlan, Kentucky has been breaking barriers for decades.

“It’s a good feeling to know I was able to accomplish these things,” said Chief Linette Hutchison, “It’s not to brag. I don’t like to brag.”

Chief Hutchison does have something to brag about. She’s the longest serving female fire chief in the state of Kentucky. She’s also helped the department gain state-of-the-art equipment through grants, saving money for the small city.

When the mayor named her chief 15 years ago, the department was in a 900 square foot metal building that couldn’t hold the department’s ladder trucks.

“It’s worked out really well,” she said.

“She keeps up with the guys and everybody respects her,” said Assistant Chief James Billings. “She’s very dedicated to this service.”

While things are going well now, getting to this point, wasn’t always easy.

Early on, she remembers hearing negative comments from firefighters at other departments.

“I just ignored it. I don’t have time for it. Your gender or sex should have no bearing on what you do. It’s the willingness you have to do it,” she said.

She couldn’t ignore what happened the night she became chief: nineteen firefighters resigned.

“I get a call [saying] you need to come to the station, there’s all this turnout gear in the middle of the station,” she said. “They decided they weren’t going to work with me. These were people I considered my brothers and my friends, and family.”

Billings was one of those firefighters who resigned, acknowledging that he had difficulty accepting a woman as his boss. But eventually changed his mind and has been with the department ever since.

Hutchison said the support from those who stayed and people in the community helped her to get through the difficult time and focus on protecting the people of Harlan. That’s why she got involved in fighting fires in the first place, back in 1983 when the small, rural community where she lived had no fire protection.

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