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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Interim no more: Julie O’Berg will lead the Spokane Fire Department, becoming its first woman chief

Julie O'Berg has been named Spokane Fire Chief by Mayor Lisa Brown. At the beginning of the year, she served as a deputy fire chief and was tapped in mid-January to serve as interim fire chief.   (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)

Julie O’Berg, a veteran firefighter who came out of retirement to assume a leadership role in the Spokane Fire Department, has been named the new Spokane fire chief.

She takes the reins of the Spokane Fire Department permanently after three months serving as the temporary head of the department. O’Berg, 56, is the first woman to ever lead the department.

O’Berg, the department’s deputy chief of operations since 2020, was named interim fire chief in January nearly two weeks after newly minted Mayor Lisa Brown announced she would be accelerating the retirement plans of former Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer.

O’Berg had been planning to retire this year but was persuaded by Brown to stay on a few more months and lead the department while a permanent successor was found, she told The Spokesman-Review in January. At the time, she said she had no intention to apply for the permanent position. 

In a brief Monday interview, O’Berg said she was inspired by Brown’s policy goals for the department and also wanted to be a part of navigating difficult challenges, such as the city’s lackluster financial situation. 

“Mayor Brown is very motivating, and honestly, working with the team in the manner I’ve been able to the last three months has been really encouraging,” O’Berg said. 

She added that she wanted to tackle improving firefighter mental health and overall wellness, and to help implement better programs to address community behavioral health and addiction issues, including by providing better data to the public. 

Prior to Monday’s announcement, the Brown administration had repeatedly indicated that it was taking early steps to launch a nationwide search for the new heads of both the fire and police departments.

The city entered into a $19,000 contract in early March with GMP Consultants Inc. based in Snoqualmie, Washington, to lead a nationwide search for a new fire chief. Around that time, Brown assured the public that she wanted the community’s input on, among other things, new chiefs for the fire and police departments. Former Police Chief Craig Meidl announced his resignation shortly after Brown won election in November; Interim Chief Justin Lundgren currently is heading that department.

Four community meetings to seek that input were scheduled for the coming weeks. Assistant City Administrator Maggie Yates, who is leading the city’s recruitment efforts for fire and police chiefs, said the public should remain assured that the Brown administration took public feedback seriously, despite hiring a fire chief without community input. 

“I think the emphasis we’re putting on the community engagement process on the police chief and the public safety priorities will hopefully make that clear for the public,” Yates said.

Yates also pointed to an internal survey in the fire department in the last two weeks.

That survey showed firefighters wanted their next chief to have risen through the ranks, have served in various firefighter positions and already have familiarity with the Spokane Fire Department, said city spokeswoman Erin Hut.

“There was quite a bit of feedback from the fire department that said, ‘We really like her leadership, and we like her,’ ” Hut said. “It just was the perfect fit.”

Before coming to Spokane, O’Berg worked in Kansas for 28 years for the Overland Park Fire Department in suburban Kansas City, becoming a lieutenant, a captain and finally a battalion chief. She also worked as a training officer for the investigations unit and served with the Kansas State Incident Management Team.

She retired from Overland Park but before long decided to return to service.

O’Berg worked before with Schaeffer through a nonprofit arm of the Overland Park Fire Department that did non-emergency medical transports. Schaeffer had mentioned that the Spokane Fire Department had an opening for a deputy chief of operations, which handles most of the duties that generally come to mind when thinking of a fire department – the kind resulting from a 911 call.

O’Berg took the job, uprooted her life and traveled across the country, arriving in April 2020 just as the COVID-19 pandemic had taken hold in the U.S.

Randy Marler, president of the Spokane Firefighters Union, which had grievances with Schaeffer before he left the city, said that O’Berg was a good pick.

“I think she’s been a stabilizing element in the department. Morale is improving,” he said. “The fire department has a lot of work to do and a lot of funding issues, but she seems like the person to work with us through this next chapter.”

Yates said the city still is moving ahead with a nationwide search for a permanent police chief, and that a hire was expected sometime this summer. She added that while details haven’t been finalized, there will be some type of public engagement with the finalists before a police chief is selected.