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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘A little bit more in the tank’: Julie O’Berg never planned to become a firefighter, let alone lead the Spokane Fire Department

Deputy Fire Chief Julie O’Berg is the interim fire chief of the Spokane Fire Department, appointed by Mayor Lisa Brown.  (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)

Julie O’Berg became a firefighter by accident.

The youngest of five children, O’Berg had to pay her own way through college and needed a job with the kind of odd shifts that she could juggle with her classes in medical school. Work as a paramedic offered that kind of flexibility, but like in many parts of the country, paramedics with the Kansas City metropolitan area’s Overland Park Fire Department at the time had to do double duty as firefighters.

More than 30 years later, O’Berg can still picture that first house fire. It was winter, and the resident had brought his motorcycle out of his garage and into the living room where it was warmer. A gasoline leak sparked.

“I really had no idea what I was doing, and I heard the explosions right as we were pulling up on the scene, the gasoline tank exploding,” she recalled. “Especially the first fire, it’s that adrenaline, and knowing it’s going to be different every day. And the camaraderie of the crews: It’s a chosen family that you work with.

“It was, OK, you got me, I’m not going to do anything different than this.”

O’Berg on Friday was tapped to lead the Spokane Fire Department on an interim basis during a nationwide search for a permanent chief.

Before coming to Spokane, she worked with the same department for 28 years, becoming a lieutenant, then 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 the department after a full career, but it wasn’t long before she began to miss the challenge and excitement that initially drew her in .

“You think, well, maybe you’ve got a little bit more left in the tank,” she said.

O’Berg worked with outgoing Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer through a nonprofit arm of the Overland Park Fire Department that did nonemergency medical transports. Schaeffer mentioned that the Spokane Fire Department had an opening for 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.

Taking a leadership role with a new department at that time came with obvious challenges, even just initially recognizing the people with whom she worked when their faces were covered with masks.

The department’s adaptation to the crisis made a lasting first impression, she said.

“The members had such a good operation going here, as far as a department operating center, for how we processed our members when they’re exposed and when they test positive,” she said. “Just one of the most professional and stellar performances, and this wasn’t the chiefs that were organizing, it was boots on the ground – the firefighters, lieutenants and captains – making sure we’re operating at that level.”

O’Berg was also impressed by how the department respected its traditions, culture and members. If someone who left the department decades ago dies, she said, that person and that person’s family are honored as though the individual just left yesterday.

“In an age where we say we never forget, but a lot of times we do forget, this organization respects and honors the people that have served here, and it’s neat to see that those words are not just spoken but they’re lived,” she added.

After more than three years with the department, O’Berg announced in early November that she planned to retire for a second time. By that time, Schaeffer had also announced he planned to retire no later than June of this year. But that latter timeline was accelerated in recent weeks by Mayor Lisa Brown, who won election to that office this November and wanted to make changes in the department, including increasing its involvement in homeless outreach.

Brown asked O’Berg to stay on a few months longer, filling in as interim fire chief during the search for her successor, though the exact timeline hasn’t been decided. She will not be applying for that permanent position, however.

“My mind had already processed through that it’s time to move on to the next chapter,” she said. “All I’m really doing is pressing pause on that, but that journey will take place once we get the right leadership in place.”

As she sat down with The Spokesman-Review on Friday, she pulled out her card and contact information from a worn wallet she’s carried with her for years – she didn’t recall for how long. On its surface was an iconic character as depicted in the silver age of comics: Wonder Woman.

O’Berg hesitated when asked about the significance of being the first woman to lead the Spokane Fire Department.

“If you want to talk about breaking a glass ceiling or breaking barriers, the breaking of that is just one instance,” she said. “Then you have to live in whatever that environment that is, and the qualifier needs to now go away and, can you do the job? Are you good at the job? Are you meeting the mission?”

She noted that in fire departments across the country, women make up between 4% to 6% of employees. When she was hired by the Overland Park Fire Department, there was only one other woman on O’Berg’s crew.

“We have to grow that, and if young women don’t see there’s a place for them, then we’re not going to attract them in,” she said. “So, it’s a mixed bag for me.”