Fired Up About the Next Generation of Women Leaders

At the end of May, Janis Kimata was promoted to assistant fire chief in Kekaha, Hawaii, making her the state’s highest ranking female chief officer. She is only the second woman to attain this rank in the 161-year history of the islands’ fire service.

Kimata is responsible for overseeing all firefighting efforts at the Pacific Missile Range Facility, the world’s largest multi-environment range. As such, the facility has space for surface (ships), subsurface (submarines), air and space operations.

Kimata spoke with Diversity Executive about her experience as a high-ranking female in a male-dominated profession and the reasons for her success.

What first drew you to firefighting as a possible career path?
After I lost my job at a five-star resort due to Hurricane Iniki in 1992, a former track coach of mine and a training friend, who is also a firefighter, recommended that I study to become a firefighter. I took his advice and started to research this career field. Through my studies, I learned that this job wasn’t just about fighting fires, but rather a multitude of exciting adventures, from conducting water rescues and hazmat operations, to being an emergency medical technician and teaching fire safety to local schools. The more I read, the more I knew this was what I wanted to do.

What were your initial perceptions of your role and how have they changed?
My initial perceptions of the job were anxiety and fear. I wasn’t sure if I could be good in my new role or if I was even capable. I feared that I would make a huge mistake or make the wrong choice, negatively affecting the lives and well-being of those around me instead of helping them.

There was a lot of pressure to prove myself as the first female assistant chief officer at the Barking Sands Fire Department since its origin in 1966. I set the bar high and strove to make a difference in my department by creating a great work environment for my employees.

Luckily, I have a ton of positive support from the great firemen that I work with every day, and it makes me even more determined to be a good role model and work hard for the betterment of our department.

Firefighting is a male-dominated industry. Describe your experiences as a woman working in this field and rising to the top. How have these experiences shaped your ideas on diversity and inclusion?
My experiences coming into this male-dominated career have been so fun and rewarding. I expected some of my co-workers to openly express their disapproval toward having females in their firehouse, but the majority proved me wrong. From the day I started, I made new friends and worked with professional firefighters that were always willing to assist me if I needed help with any task. The men never treated me differently. I think it was extremely important that I was always myself and did not let anyone else influence how I did my job or the attitude I brought to work. And when I needed help, I was never afraid to ask.

How do you gauge the success of your role as assistant fire chief?
The ways in which I gauge success in my role as assistant fire chief are through holding regular meetings to discuss training and upcoming events, and creating an environment where everyone on the team feels like he/she has a say in the department. If someone has a concern or suggestion on how I can improve operations, I make sure to research and follow up on suggestions. I take the time to talk to each individual privately to give and receive feedback. I also think balancing my home life with my two sons and work is critical to my success.

Have you noticed any evolution in women’s and minorities’ participation in firefighting? Has it grown or changed over time from your perspective?
In Hawaii, I have noticed more females applying, and in my current role, I am making a conscious effort to recruit more females in order to prove that women are capable of handling a job that is predominantly male. I volunteer at local schools to spread the fire safety and prevention message, and I am always very surprised and thrilled to see young girls raise their hands with excitement when asked if they want to become firefighters.

I believe women are assets to the firefighting profession because of their inherent compassion for others. In my experience, when we have emergencies involving women or children, the victims appreciate talking to or being taken care of by women firefighters. However, I think few women enter this field because it is difficult to be away from their families for 24 hours at a time, and there are often greater challenges in maintaining their physical strength.

The only advice that I would offer to women who are debating whether to become firefighters is if your heart is in it, go for it! It is an incredibly rewarding profession in which you are able to help save someone’s life. There is never a dull moment, and every day is an opportunity to learn something new.

Jeffrey Cattel is an editorial intern at Diversity Executive magazine. He can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.