Fire Chief Deena Johnson Lee simply outshines all dated stereotypes of a woman in action. You can’t help but be in awe of Deena as she shares the action-packed stories of her career. Not only has she rappelled down buildings, flown in helicopters, and climbed through 18-inch pipes, but action for Deena has meant forging forward through 20 years of conventionalism to claim respect and take her stand as a woman leader in a male-dominated field. For Deena, it’s not about power, it’s about serving her team, serving those who face the worst of their days, serving for a greater change and creating possibilities for both men and women.
Woman Fighting Fire
I have had the opportunity to rappel out of a seven-story building, crawl through an 18-inch pipe in a confined space, jump in a raging river, and fly in a helicopter, to name a few. The most rewarding moments of being a firewoman are when I can be there for another human being on the worst day of their lives and make it better for them.
Women have made such great strides in most career fields. Yet, there are a few remaining fields in which women still remain mostly absent. Despite the efforts of fire departments to recruit women, only 5% of firefighters are women, and this number is up from 4% just three years ago. Other careers that seem to have a male profile, in particular the military and police, have had more success in recruiting women. Just to get the job, firefighters have to face strenuous physical tests. To succeed in the job firefighters must face tough emotional, intellectual and psychological challenges.
She Can magazine has been presented with the rare opportunity of interviewing a woman firefighter, who is even more of a rarity in her role as Fire Chief of the El Segundo, California station. After dedicating two decades of fire service, the City appointed Deena Johnson Lee to serve as Chief in November 2021. The City’s announcement of her appointment mentioned that she was the only fire chief in a region that includes three counties, Ventura, Orange and Los Angeles. She is also outstanding in being among 150 fire chiefs (some 6.3%) across the country at different levels, districts, battalion, divisions or assistants.
The wealth of experience Chief Lee attained over two decades attests to her high qualifications for the top position. Her background included several stints as captain and her promotion to battalion chief in El Segundo in 2019, responsibilities that gave her experience across a wide range from fighting wildfires to many so-called “leadership assignments” that included supervising training, responding to emergency medical situations, and participating in search and rescue missions. Surveying the diverse responsibilities of a superlative firefighting professional, we can see how the quality of physical strength is just a minimum requirement of a job for which judgment, compassion, composure, far-sightedness, the qualities of mental toughness and acuity are priority.
Seeing Leads to Doing
I had to learn that other people’s opinions of me do not determine who I am. It took me years to build my self-confidence
Deena Lee broke out of the cultural container that constricted her ambitions that put them in a box. Deena’s attendance in 2018 at the ARISE (A Reason To Include and Support Everyone) Summit was pivotal in her rise. The L.A.County Fire Department organized this conference, inviting women firefighters from Southern California departments.
The theme of this inaugural summit was “Women in the Fire Service: Courage to Lead the Way.” The message struck home with Deena, who described the transformation she experienced at the event.
Deena: This was the first time in 18 years that I had ever seen so many women firefighters assembled in one place. For the first time, I saw several women in black, battalion chief uniforms. I had considered promoting to battalion chief, but it didn’t seem like a reality until I could see it. That inspired me to promote to battalion chief, and eventually, fire chief. I truly believe, If you can see it, you can be it. I want women firefighters to see me and believe that becoming fire chief is possible.
Conform Or Be Yourself
When Deena started her career as a firefighter, she knew she was aware of the scrutiny of judgement she faced as a woman firefighter. She describes the test she set up for herself.
Deena: I just dragged around the heaviest guy in the department. Some of the firefighters just wanted to know that I was strong enough to get them out of a burning building if necessary.
When the situation changed from safeguarding each other in the field to being in a position of command over her co-workers, Deena explains how she had to find greater inner strength to manage experiences of disparagement and alienation.
Deena: When I was promoted to captain, that was a different story. Some of the firefighters did not like me out-ranking them and being their supervisor. I had to deal with constant criticism and sometimes insubordination. An example of this was in 2007. When I first promoted to fire captain, my supervisor/ battalion chief was criticizing me to the entire platoon about the way I talked on the radio. I was just clearing an emergency call and was running late to our training drill. When I showed up, no one would look me in the eye. I found out later from another captain what was said, but he didn’t have the courage to stick up for me in front of everyone. The firefighters that respected me did not speak up. The peer pressure to go along with the group is very strong in the fire service. I had to learn that other peoples’ opinions of me do not determine who I am. It took me years to build my self-confidence.
Never dim your light and continue to rise above the noise.
The best times have been after a fire or large incident. The feeling of teamwork, pride, and accomplishment after a job well done. We all pull together when it really counts.
We at She Can magazine were curious whether she faced more resistance from the women or men she worked with. Deena was clear, “Definitely, my worst critics were men, although some women firefighters don’t want to associate with me because they want to “fit in” and not challenge the status quo.”
We asked Chief Lee about her experience as a leader in a male-dominated profession.
Deena: My experience has been that some men want to put you in a box. They want to treat you like a mother, a sister, a wife, or a lover. Some don’t seem to be able to put a woman firefighter in space as an equal. However, throughout my career I have had men firefighters that have been allies. They have told me that I am an inspiration to them. I have overheard them stick up for me, when someone commented that I can’t do the job. The best times have been after a fire or large incident. The feeling of teamwork, pride, and accomplishment after a job well done. We all pull together when it really counts. I look back fondly at times spent around the kitchen table, I laughed so much that my cheeks hurt. There were a lot of good time and many men firefighters that treat me as an equal too. I get most of my accolades one on one. It is the culture of the fire service that needs to change.
Chief Lee offered advice she would give to women in male-dominated or culturally rigid work environments.
Deena: The advice I would give is to not compromise your values to “fit in.” Other peoples’ opinion of you does not determine who you are. Never forget your purpose and the reason you signed up to do this job. Some will try to bring you down. Never dim your light and continue to rise above the noise.
Change is a Coming
Chief Lee has overcome great obstacles (that is why she is chief!) and sees that change is underway. Indeed, this change would not have been possible without women and men leading by example. Her experience has been very instructive about how change occurs in organizational cultures. Deena explains, “Change only comes from changing behavior and not from conforming. Keep showing up and stepping up” The change began with Deena, as she adjusted internally the way she saw her role and its potentialities. In doing and showing others what she could do, she changed the possibilities for other women and men.
Deena highlights that challenges do not arise because of men or women, more that the fire service, like other instututions, has an entrenched masculinized culture that endorses power, performance and ways of working typically characterized by masculine qualities. There are many actions that impede inclusion but are not explicitly unacceptable. She sees how this culture can have negative effects on both men and women. Deena explains how group loyalty is paramount to the success and wellbeing of the fire service, but to challenge norms can be perceived as an act of disloyalty too.
For Deena, her experiences are not stories to tell but instead have influenced her facilitative leadership style whereby she is dedicated to improving the work experiences of male and female firefighters for which she firmly stands for.
Deena: Fire Service culture is being forced to change. The autocratic style of leadership is on it’s way out. A large percentage of firefighters are millennials now. They are concerned with a work/life balance, unlike firefighters hired into the militaristic fire service. My challenge is to keep firefighters safe on the fire ground and create a psychologically safe work environment in the firehouse.
I consider myself a servant leader and also a transformational leader. I want to give up the conventional leadership style, set aside my ego, listen to the firefighters, and create mentorship opportunities for everyone. I want to inspire cultural change and encourage our members to take ownership of our organization.
Strength Beyond & Above The Physical
The constant pressure and calling of the California wildfires has meant these individuals have had to tap into more profound strengths: psychological perseverance, equanimity, and dedication. We asked Deena to elaborate on the California wildfires and explain how she remained calm and led through the crisis.
Deena: The California wildland fires have been getting worse every year. There isn’t a “fire season” anymore, and they are year-round. In California, the fire service does an excellent job of utilizing the mutual aid system and mobilizing fire resources from all over the state in minutes. We train every year in anticipation of a deployment. One of the ways that we remain calm is through our continuous training. We are well prepared for the expected and the unexpected.
As a leader, the crews are looking to set the tone. I must remain calm so that we can execute the mission. The weight of the responsibility forces me to step up and be the brave face that the crews need. My education, training, and experience assure them that I will not put them in a dangerous situation.
Deena: I have had so many memorable moments as a firewoman. Of course, all of the fires, traffic collisions, technical rescues, wildland fires, and other emergency incidents I have responded to have been opportunities to utilize the skills we train on every day. The training that I have participated in has enabled me to have experiences that I never dreamed were possible. I have had the opportunity to rappel out of a seven-story building, crawl through an 18-inch pipe in a confined space, jump in a raging river, and fly in a helicopter, to name a few. The most rewarding moments of being a firewoman are when I can be there for another human being on the worst day of their lives and make it better for them.
Realization, Authenticity & Courage
She Can be asked Chief Lee how she felt about her sense of power. In Deena’s s unique style, it all came down to change.
Deena: I don’t feel powerful in a traditional sense like I can boss people around. I feel powerful in my ability to change the world. I know that I already have. I will continue to blaze a trail for women and girls and encourage them to follow their dreams.
Although her journey of change began as a personal journey, it has evolved into a model for change she hopes to share with the other members of the fire service in what has become a quest for transformation.
To conclude, I wanted to leave you with the three most important pieces of wisdom from a woman with mountainous and diverse experiences in an unchartered field. In Deena’s words…
You are much stronger than you think you are.
Your courage is your super-power. Keep showing up and stepping up.
The best thing that you have to offer the world is your authentic self.