By Nicole Thom-Arens
Photography: Rick Heit Photography
Kelli Kronschnabel, Minot’s fire chief, is one of only about 50 women fire chiefs in the nation. When she was first hired as a firefighter in Grand Forks, North Dakota, more than 20 years ago, she, along with another woman, were the first women hired to the Fire Department in the city’s history.
“I was thankful that Grand Forks identified that it was hard to hire the first females,” Kelli says. “They had two of us who were on the list and they hired us together, which really helped. It helped to kind of share the burden of breaking in.”
Firefighting, Kelli says, is a rewarding profession. That constant reminder of why she was doing the work helped her persevere as she worked to prove herself on the job.
“It’s tough,” Kelli says of breaking into a male-dominated profession. “It’s such a rewarding career. You almost have to keep focused on that — why you’re doing it. The people around you — everyone has to earn trust. Everyone has to earn respect whether you’re male or female.”
Kelli didn’t grow up wanting to be a firefighter; in fact, she initially pursued a career in law enforcement, but when she finished the academy, that path no longer seemed like the right one for her. While attending college in Wisconsin where she played basketball, a friend on the Grand Forks Fire Department reached out and encouraged her to apply. She got the job, left school, and worked for the department for 20 years before moving to Minot for the chief position.
“I was an administrative battalion chief over support services, so I oversaw prevention, training, and maintenance for five years. I really like the administrative side of it. I like the business side of it. It just fits my personality, fits my everything. Then I wanted the next step. I wanted to be a chief officer,” Kelli says.
Getting to that next step took determination, drive, and education. Kelli is a strong proponent of education at the right time. She knew what she wanted, and she knew what she needed to do to enhance her chances of getting the job.
“Whenever I have a goal, I always write it down to see what I can control, and I always try to take away all the factors that I can control — for example, education. For a chief officer, you need to have one of two things, a master’s degree or you need to have executive fire officer certification from the National Fire Academy; well, I went and got both,” Kelli says. “I want to minimize the reasons for them to say no to me.”
Being career-driven as a young woman often comes with the additional challenges of having children. While Kelli was rising to the challenges in fire service, she was also raising three young boys.
“Probably the greatest challenge when I was in Grand Forks and moving through the ranks was life balance, as I had young children, and being the first one to ever become pregnant (in the department) and the challenges of motherhood as you’re gone for 24-hour periods — it was very challenging,” Kelli remembers.
Kelli credits motherhood with teaching her a broader approach to dealing with performance issues she’s needed to address as a leader. Often, both in Minot and when she was in Grand Forks, Kelli’s been the only woman at the table when decisions are being made.
“The thing that I have seen that I bring is the perspective of being a little more holistic. For example, with disciplinary issues, we (women) tend to be more perceptive that that’s a behavior and there’s an underlying problem. Because usually it is something else — there’s more to the story. I never thought I had soft skills because you’re just hard charging, you’re fighting fire; I’m starting to work on those more and more. I tend to bring more of that perspective,” Kelli explains.
As a woman in leadership in a male-dominated industry, Kelli strives to make herself visible in the community. She wants women and girls to be able to see themselves as firefighters, and she continues to be a resource for the female firefighters in her department.
“Techniques for women are a little bit different than men at some point. Women are built differently, and I told two new female firefighters, ‘I’ll go get my gear and I’ll go out there to the academy and I’ll show you some techniques because we have to focus on our big muscles — our legs. I’ll show you some things that work for me,’” Kelli recalls.
While women and men approach physical challenges differently, the bar remains the same no matter the firefighter’s gender.
“We don’t lower standards for anybody. Standards are set, and everyone has to pass those standards. You work hard, you show up and do a good job, you keep focused on our community and your mission,” Kelli says of being part of a team.
As she reflects on the work the department has accomplished during her time as chief, Kelli is proud, but she’s also aware of the challenges the industry faces — firefighters don’t just fight fires.
“We’re not a fire department; we really should change our name to emergency services department. We provide EMS (emergency medical services). We provide hazardous materials response. We provide technical rescue of all the different disciplines. We have a water rescue team. We’re part of the SWAT team. We’re on the bomb squad. I mean, we are so diverse; it’s actually pretty exciting here,” Kelli says of the Minot Fire Department.
That diversity in services, she believes, must extend to staff.
“I see us moving to have a lot more diversity. It’s really become a hot topic — not only diversity but inclusion. You can have a diverse workforce, but are you really inclusive? That’s a whole different ball game. I also see us striving to look more like our community. Our community is not made up of all males. We are a diverse community and we need to look more like our community.”
Kelli says she’s proud Minot city leaders took a chance on hiring her — a female chief. Her vision of the future makes it clear she doesn’t take this trailblazing role lightly; she’s a woman promoting the advancement of other women, and she’s still asking, “What’s next?” She’s recently started writing for International Fire Fighter, a global publication, to share her expertise and perspective as an industry leader. When she advises other women on reaching goals and setting new ones, Kelli says the best advice is for them to be true to themselves.
“Figure out who you are and don’t let anyone change that,” she says. “I know that seems very cliché, but just be you. It’s easier to be you than what you’re trying to be. You’ll get there but it’s going to take a lot of work.”