EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — After climbing many ladders over the last 19 years, El Segundo’s new Fire Chief Deena Lee has reached the top.
Although her daily briefings are part of a routine, there is nothing ordinary about the first woman to lead the department.
“I had to work 10 times harder to get where I am,” she said.
Lee's appointment became official in November 2021, but she still remembers her first day as a firefighter back in February 2003.
“I was so excited, and I would literally just wait for the tones to go off, just hoping for a fire, and it doesn’t work that way. It’s totally random,” she said.
Although she was ready to tackle the fires, Lee's training didn’t prepare her for the resistance she would face.
"One of the things that was surprising to me was when I came here as a firefighter and I had to prove myself," she said. "So, what I did is I dragged around the heaviest guy on the department and so I proved to everyone that I could do the job and I was very well accepted. When I was promoted to captain, then I wasn’t expecting all of the resistance and the challenging me."
Even now, as El Segundo’s first female fire chief with about 50 employees reporting to her, she says her authority is sometimes challenged.
“Little undermining that I observe — calling me Deena instead of chief, or not addressing me in a professional manner. They’re small microaggressions, saying fireman instead of firefighter to my face,” said Lee.
The fire service is a profession still dominated by men, with only about 4% of career firefighters being women, according to the National Fire Protection Association. There is no reliable data on how many of them have ascended to leadership positions.
From hazing to rape, female firefighters often face resistance from the onset. In a recent survey of the Los Angeles Fire Department, 56% of female firefighters who responded said they faced bullying or harassment at work.
“I don’t think anyone truly understands, and maybe can comprehend the challenges that she has faced over the course of her career,” said El Segundo Battalion Chief Evan Siefke, who has worked with Lee for 19 years.
Siefke added that Lee is ready for the role because she has had to work harder than anyone else to get the post.
Since Lee's appointment, cards and letters have poured in from women and girls inspired by her achievement. One of them reads, “I’m so impressed and proud of you and especially grateful for your commitment to mentor other young women and girls.”
Lee has even received letters from women that inspired her to enter the fire service. Now that she has shattered a glass ceiling at ESFD, she hopes to inspire others.
"I’m in for the long game, which is for women to be treated equally and respectfully, and I’ll just keep at it."