Climbing the Ladder as First Female Fire Chief and Role Model

Apr 26, 2018

In part two of our series “Women Leading the Way” in fields traditionally dominated by men,Lexington’s first female Fire Chief, Kristin Chilton talks progress, challenges and role models.

On a recent Monday morning  ,red lights flashing, an ambulance  with the words Lexington Fire Department,  on the side  pulls out of the city’s fourth oldest fire station.  It’s business as usual for Fire Chief Kristin Chilton. The 25 -year fire department veteran is use to the sound of sirens.

Chilton:”Well I was the first female that was promoted that stayed on the line and rode a truck that ended up supervising a crew.  Then I was a district major and I was the first district major that supervised a whole entire district."

And now  as Lexington’s first female fire chief, for the last two years, she oversees 574 sworn personnel and 25 civilian staff. The 5 foot 4 petite chief is still comfortable climbing up into the very large fire truck. .

Chilton: “This truck is the one that’s gonna have the water and the hose. So this is the one that’s gonna pull up, hook to the hydrant and this is the one that’s actually gonna extinguish the fire.”

An only child born in Honolulu, Hawaii because her dad was in the military Kristen Chilton always thought she’d be a veterinarian. But that changed when she was a senior in college at Transylvania University. Her first aid class took a trip to see what the local fire station’s first aid truck was like and she was invited to do a ride a long.

Chilton: “And there was a female paramedic who was one of the lead paramedics on that truck and it was the very first  female firefighter that was ever hired in Lexington, Lisa Daley who started talking to me about the job and recruiting me to come to the career and the thought had never really crossed my mind until that ride-a-long. And I rode that shift and I rode another night and from that moment on I was kind of hooked.”

Chief Chilton has lived in Lexington since 1980 and considers it her home. She says it never occurred to her the job wasn’t for females but as the only woman in her recruit class of 26 there were challenges.

Chilton: “Being the only female always makes you feel a little bit awkward or a little bit of an outcast in that you never totally fit in with the group. It’s better than it was 25 years ago when I came on but it still has its challenges. Still with our division at 574 we currently only still have 15 women on the job.”

Chilton has the distinction of being one of only five women who are metro fire chiefs in the nation.  A metro fire chief is in charge of 300 or more sworn personnel.  She says there are approximately 45 female fire chiefs in the country combining career and volunteer fire departments . They get together to support each other ,network and brainstorm about recruiting .

Chilton: “Women don’t realize that this profession could be for them. So that’s where recruiting really comes into play is telling women this is a really great career option for them. If you are somebody who likes a physical job, you like being out, you like working in a team environment because we do everything as a team."

When it comes to being a role model for girls and young women she has a message for them.

Chilton: “Don’t let anybody tell you what you can or can’t do. If you set your mind to something anything’s possible. “

She also has a sense of humor and says people always tell her she looks like a certain comedian.

CL: Do people tell you, you look like a Tina Fey? Chief: People tell me that all the time. Do you know who you look like, you look like Tina Fey! haha

The 50 –year- old Chilton relies on inner strength to get her through challenges . She  credits her family for their support . And one woman she says inspired her was her grandma.

Chilton:"She was strong willed, even though she was very traditional,hard working, good values, good morals. At 96 years old she’d be on the back porch beating a snake with a broom."

Fire Chief Chilton says even though there have been challenges because she is a woman leading in a traditionally male dominated  profession her goal is to make it better for the next generation.