A Q&A with Kathy Bossman: Omaha’s First Female Fire Chief

This past March, Kathy Bossman was appointed the Omaha Fire Department’s first female fire chief. Starting as a firefighter paramedic in 1997, she was promoted to captain in 2004. She climbed the ranks to battalion chief in 2010, then in 2017 became assistant chief, the first female to hold that position. She was sworn in as fire chief in April.

Q) How does it feel to be Omaha’s first female fire chief?

A) It is exciting!  Although, I don’t often take time to really consider the significance of being the first female fire chief for the City of Omaha. I start each day with gratitude and a long to-do list! I am thankful that I can serve in this capacity and am dedicated to making positive changes for the Omaha Fire Department.

Q) Tell us about your career. What are you most proud of?

A) I began my career in 1997. I was the only female in my academy class, and have always worked hard to prove that I can do this job. The Omaha Fire Department hired its first female firefighters in 1987. They faced greater challenges than I did, and I am thankful for their enthusiasm and perseverance.

I spent several years working in different parts of the city. I worked on fire engines, fire trucks, and medic units, and found working as a paramedic the most rewarding position. The first baby I delivered was in the back of a medic unit during a snowstorm. That baby would now be around 24 years old!

Becoming fire chief was never in my career plan. I figured I would retire at the rank of captain, or maybe battalion chief. As I was promoted up the ranks, though, each promotional opportunity felt like a natural progression for me. Each position provided me with new challenges and experiences. I find many aspects of being a firefighter rewarding, but I am most proud of my appointment as fire chief. I am able to show young women that they can have a successful career in the fire service, and they can also be department leaders. I sought out mentorship, educational opportunities, and professional development as I prepared myself for this role.

Q) Did you always want to be a firefighter?

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A) I never had plans to become a firefighter when I was younger. I did not know anyone who worked as a firefighter when I was growing up. I went to college in Lincoln and earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology. I planned to go to physical therapy school. I applied two times but did not get accepted. I reevaluated and decided to go to paramedic school at Creighton University. Not getting accepted to physical therapy school was the best thing that ever happened to me!

During my paramedic training, we completed field training with the Omaha Fire Department. I was able to get an inside look at the impact firefighters have during their service to the community. I found the work exciting and liked the idea that each shift could bring different challenges.   

Q) Now that you have been in the fire chief post for several months, what changes have you made?

A) I am learning my role and keeping various programs moving forward. I have a great team of assistant chiefs, and I rely heavily on them to manage the day-to-day operations and share our department goals. I maintain an open-door policy and enjoy hearing the input and suggestions from members of the department. We are fortunate to have some incredibly smart members working at every rank. I value their ideas and perspectives. As a team, we are actively working to update several policies as well as developing future training for our firefighters.

Q) What is your advice to other women pursuing a career in firefighting?

A) I strongly encourage young women to consider a career in the fire service. When I started, I was a bit naive to the incredible opportunities that exist. First, we need women who enjoy a team environment, and who enjoy both physical and mental challenges.
All employees begin their careers learning how to be a firefighter.
We provide all training, including EMT certification. We need women who are interested in becoming paramedics, inspectors, instructors, IT specialists, fire investigators, data specialists, and policy writers – to name a few positions! We need women who are willing to help lead our crews, battalions, and divisions.

Any woman interested in a career in the fire service is encouraged to contact us via our website and request a fire station tour. We will show them what the job entails and answer any questions they may have. I am proud of our department, and we are happy to share information on the service we provide to the citizens of Omaha.

Q) What are some of the biggest challenges you face in 2024?

A) One challenge we are facing in 2024 is the loss of many veteran department members as they retire. The end of 2023 and early 2024 will have dozens of retirements. We will have many young members promoted to higher ranks and learning how to lead at new levels. Although the promotional process can be stressful for those going through it, I am excited to see them thrive in their new roles. Newly promoted members bring fresh perspectives and leadership styles which often result in improved service to our community.

Also in 2024, the Omaha Fire Department is providing grant-funded wellness physicals and cancer screenings to firefighters who want to participate in the free program.  Firefighters can face a higher level of carcinogens compared to the normal population.  We have instituted steps that reduce that cancer risk, but these screenings will be an important component in supporting the health and well-being of our firefighters. The Omaha Fire Department will be working hard to coordinate scheduling so each firefighter who requests a physical will receive it.

Q) What are your goals for the City of Omaha Fire Department?

A) My goals for the Omaha Fire Department are to provide a high level of service to the citizens while continuing to be progressive and innovative in the development of our policies and procedures. I want firefighters from every rank to feel valued and be engaged in the growth of our department.

Q) What is your leadership style?

A) I love discussing leadership, and earned my master’s degree in organizational leadership. I would describe myself as an authentic leader. I recall a moment when I was first promoted to the rank of battalion chief, and I was questioning how I would fit the mold of my predecessors. I was worried that I had to ‘act’ like my male role models, and I knew that would seem disingenuous. I finally made a conscious decision to just be myself.

I am a listener, and a thinker. I like to hear various opinions and consider the best scenario moving forward. Sometimes I have a great deal of time to think through options, other times, for example, at a fire scene, decisions have to be made very quickly. Lives can depend on it.

Q) What is something about you that not everyone knows?

A) I am perfectly happy relaxing at home. I love watching sports, mostly softball and football. The older I get, I am so impressed by the athleticism of the players. I appreciate the dedication each athlete has to his or her team’s success.

I also enjoy audiobooks and often listen to suspenseful, murder mystery books while driving.

One final unusual fact – I share a group chat with a number of high-ranking female fire chiefs from across the country, and we challenge each other to complete the Wordle online each day!

Q) What are your hobbies?

A) I spent many years supporting my two daughters as they played travel softball and then marching band. Now that they are in college, I enjoy spending time with my husband and our dog. We occasionally travel and spend time with family and friends.