Trailblazer: How New York City Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh Launched Her Career at Whittier College

September 29, 2023

Laura KavanaghLaura Kavanagh ’04 never expected to lead the largest fire department in the country, so she advises Whittier students to explore different avenues to open new doors.

“Any opportunity you have to really get involved in will help prepare you for whatever career it is, whether it's in public service or not,” Kavanagh said.

It’s been one year since Kavanagh ’04 was appointed the New York City Fire Department commissioner. She became the FDNY’s first woman commissioner, overseeing the day-to-day operations of 17,000 employees and a $2 billion budget.

“The actual work of being fire commissioner felt like a natural transition to me, but certainly the attention and the title were something to get used to and still are,” said Kavanagh, who has been with the department since 2014.

Growing up near San Francisco, Kavanagh had a high school writing teacher who encouraged her to attend Whittier College, and she’s glad she took the advice.

She was mentored by Political Science Professor Mike McBride, Ph.D., and the late Frederic Bergerson, Ph.D., while earning a bachelor’s degree in political science and international relations. Kavanagh was drawn to that field because she wanted to work in public service.

Kavanagh enjoyed Whittier’s small class sizes and a flexible curriculum that had her out of the classroom studying in places like Washington, D.C., and Rome. She still keeps in touch with the friends she made at Whittier, and her relationships with professors like McBride are the reason she attended a recent alumni event in New York.

“They were very engaged in both school and my career afterward,” Kavanagh said.

A portion of that career had Kavanagh serving as special assistant to former New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and senior advisor on his mayoral campaign. But transitioning into what Kavanagh calls “small ‘p’ politics” with the fire department has been extremely rewarding.

“I would say it is more meaningful running an agency that actually does real, tangible, life-saving work at the end of the day,” Kavanagh said. “I can't really think of any better public service job than that.”

Yet the job is not without hardships. Her department went through four line-of-duty deaths in the first year she was commissioner. 

“Unfortunately we see tragedy — both our own and that of New York citizens — up close and personal, and that can be very difficult,” Kavanagh said. “Each one of those is very heartbreaking.”

Achievements in department diversity and events like the Second Chance Brunch — where rescuers are reunited with the patients they saved — help keep her positive. Kavanagh is also proud that the department is proactively adjusting to changing landscapes, improving member safety through technology, and advocating to pass increased safety regulations for lithium-ion batteries.

Kavanagh’s advice to Whittier students is to take a direct approach to their studies like she did to make the most of their time in college. 

“Take advantage of the opportunity to get your hands on work and see how to actually move the ball forward on projects you’re passionate about,” Kavanagh said.