FDNY commissioner Laura Kavanagh is one of three women running New York’s biggest agencies

March 23, 2023, 1:05 PM UTC
FDNY commissioner Laura Kavanagh, pictured before New Year's Eve 2022.
Alexi Rosenfeld—WireImage/Getty Images

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– On fire. New York City has still never had a female mayor, but the city of 8.5 million does have women in charge of some of its biggest agencies.

In December 2021, Keechant L. Sewell was named commissioner of the New York Police Department. In April 2022, Jessica Tisch became sanitation commissioner. Then in November, Laura Kavanagh joined them when Mayor Eric Adams named her commissioner of the Fire Department of New York.

Sewell and Kavanagh are both the first women in their respective roles. (Tisch is the first sanitation commissioner to go viral on TikTok when she said in a speech last year that “the rats don’t run this city; we do.”)

Being the first isn’t easy, especially in such male-dominated organizations. The fire workforce is 99% male. (FDNY also includes the EMS workforce, which is not quite as male-dominated.) Kavanagh joined the department as a civilian executive in 2014 but has never worked as a firefighter. She previously worked on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign. At 40, she’s also the youngest commissioner in FDNY’s history.

FDNY commissioner Laura Kavanagh, pictured before New Year’s Eve 2022.
Alexi Rosenfeld—WireImage/Getty Images

“Being the only woman can, at times, be—I don’t want to call it intimidating, because I’m not intimidated by it,” Kavanagh says. “But it’s definitely something to get used to. You’re always going to stand out.”

Since stepping into the role of FDNY commissioner on a permanent basis, she’s worked to build a more diverse team. But it hasn’t been easy; last month, four chiefs claiming they were unfairly demoted filed a lawsuit against the department and against Kavanagh. Kavanagh has denied the claim and said she is putting together a new team as is typical for a new commissioner.

The lawsuit took aim at what the chiefs see as Kavanagh’s lack of on-the-ground experience. “We have thousands of people who are extraordinarily talented at responding to fires and medical emergencies,” she said in an interview before the suit was filed. “They don’t need me to do that. I’m here to advocate for policies, for laws, for resources for the department.”

Kavanagh says she won’t back down from new and difficult environments—including those resistant to change. “I’ve always landed in new places where I didn’t fit,” she says. Working alongside other women in leadership positions at male-dominated city organizations has helped during this particular transition; she and Sewell have supported each other through handling line-of-duty deaths in the FDNY and NYPD. “I really lean on those women for guidance, advice, and support,” she says.

Emma Hinchliffe

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