Meet Laura Kavanagh, FDNY's first female commissioner

“To say it's the honor of a lifetime is an understatement,” said the former deputy commissioner


Thomas Tracy
New York Daily News

NEW YORK — Herstory was made at a small lower Manhattan firehouse Thursday when Laura Kavanagh, a self-proclaimed introvert from San Francisco, was named the FDNY’s first woman fire commissioner.

Surrounded by a dozen women in key city leadership roles, including NYPD Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell, Mayor Adams officially named Kavanagh to the position, a milestone in the FDNY’s 157-year history.

Acting Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh, left, is sworn in as permanent New York City Fire Commissioner as her mother Susan, right, holds a family Bible during a ceremony at FDNY Engine 33/Ladder 9, Thursday, Oct 27, 2022, in New York. “I was doing ok until I had to do that,” Kavanagh said after sharing a prolonged hug with her mom. “That was very special for me.”
Acting Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh, left, is sworn in as permanent New York City Fire Commissioner as her mother Susan, right, holds a family Bible during a ceremony at FDNY Engine 33/Ladder 9, Thursday, Oct 27, 2022, in New York. “I was doing ok until I had to do that,” Kavanagh said after sharing a prolonged hug with her mom. “That was very special for me.” (Photo/Yuki Iwamura/Associated Press)

Her beaming mother Susan held out a bible that once belonged to Kavanagh’s grandmother as she took the oath of office inside Engine 33 and Ladder 9 on Great Jones St. in NoHo where the FDNY’s first fire commissioner, John Scannell, had his office in 1898.

“I was doing ok until I had to do that,” Kavanagh said after sharing a prolonged hug with her mom. “That was very special for me.”

Kavanagh, 40, was the FDNY’s acting fire commissioner since former Fire Commissioner Dan Nigro retired in February. She’s been the agency’s first deputy commissioner and has been credited with improving communications and technology used by firefighters.

She also led a department recruitment campaign that “created the largest and most diverse class of women in three decades,” Adams said.

“To say it's the honor of a lifetime is an understatement,” Kavanagh said, accepting her Fire Commissioner shield. “This story is quintessentially a New York City story.

“This story is simply not possible anywhere else,” she said. “I almost cannot believe it.”

After growing up as an only child in San Francisco and attending Whittier College in California, Kavanagh, who described herself as an introvert, bought a one-way ticket to New York, where she got a master’s degree in public administration at Columbia University.

After working in the non-profit sector, she became an integral part of several mayoral, congressional and presidential campaigns before becoming a special assistant to former Mayor de Blasio.

She was given a leadership position in the FDNY in 2014 and was named the FDNY’s first deputy commissioner four years later.

Since moving to New York, Kavanagh has lived in every borough. She has also raced in every borough: the avid runner has participated in two New York City marathons.

“The city is the love of my life, and I am relentlessly optimistic about its future,” she said.

As fire commissioner, she will oversee the department’s 17,000 employees and $2 billion-dollar budget.

Like the city itself, the FDNY “is about making the impossible possible,” Kavanagh said. “The FDNY makes up some of the strongest strands of our city’s DNA.”

Adams always wanted Kavanagh to be part of his administration, but it took eight months before he officially named her fire commissioner.

The city underwent an extensive national search for Nigro’s replacement, Adams said, but “over and over again I just kept coming back to her leadership.”

“We lost firefighters in the first months we were here,” Adams said. “Each time I spoke with their families, she was there. And sometimes she was there before everyone else. Even at 3 or 4 in the morning, she was a ring away.”

Adams, who wanted to diversify the city’s leadership since he was elected to office, said Kavanagh will be the first woman to lead the largest fire department in the country — an agency that is still predominantly composed of white men.

Addressing the FDNY’s rank and file, Adams said to “follow the leadership, no matter what the gender may be, you are raising your standard as firefighters and you are willing to face the future head-on.

“You have earned the right to be called bravest because not only are you willing to fight the flames in buildings, but the flames that keep our futures burned down over and over again,” he said.

Adams admitted he took so long to appoint a fire commissioner because he “didn’t know the FDNY.”

“I didn’t understand the culture, the agency,” he said. “This is an organization rooted in tradition. You can’t just drop anyone into the FDNY.

“But before the end of fire safety month, I said ‘Let’s put out this fire and name a commissioner,’” he joked.

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©2022 New York Daily News. Visit nydailynews.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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