Deena Lee achieves a first for South Bay female firefighters.
Written by Nancy Sokoler Steiner | Photographed by Michael Neveux
As a single mother and waitress in the ’90s, Deena Lee never imagined
she’d one day become the South Bay’s first female fire battalion
chief. She took a CPR class to learn basic safety and discovered a passion.
Lee then got certified as an emergency medical technician and began taking
nursing classes at Long Beach City College. Working nights in a local
ER, she received encouragement from firefighters to consider fire service.
“That had never occurred to me,” says Lee, who began riding
along on calls. “I fell in love. I had found my calling.”
After completing training and testing, she was hired by the El Segundo
Fire Department in 2003 and promoted to fire captain in 2007.
Lee had been working as a professional firefighter for 15 years when she
saw something unusual. Attending a Los Angeles County Fire Department
summit with participants from throughout Southern California, she noticed
a sprinkling of women wearing the black uniform signifying a battalion
chief. A supervisory role, battalion chief ranks directly below fire chief—the
top official of a community fire department.
“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh! I can do this!’” says
Lee. She took the promotional test and ranked highest among the candidates
taking the test. In May 2019 she was appointed battalion chief—the
first woman in the South Bay to attain that rank.
Now Lee wants other girls and women to learn about and receive mentoring
for positions in fire service. She helped form the Women’s Fire
Alliance, a nonprofit organization supporting and empowering women in
the field. With more than 100 members, the organization currently mentors
40+ women, including the high school student Lee guides.
According to the organization Women in Fire, the first female career firefighter
was hired in 1974. In 2018 only 4% of professional firefighters were female,
according to the National Fire Protection Association.
Lee acknowledges the difficulty of being female in a male-dominated field.
“All eyes are on you when you’re a woman going through the
fire academy. You have to be better because you can’t blend in.
As you work, you have to remember it’s about service to the community
and not get caught up with egos and testosterone.”
She participates in community activities such as reading to children at
the El Segundo Public Library and teaching first aid to Scouts, as well
as teaching occasionally at the El Camino Fire Academy. She wants children
and adults—females and males—to see a woman working in her role.
As one of three El Segundo battalion chiefs, Lee supervises the company—including
firefighters, paramedics, the engineer and fire captains—on duty
at that time. A typical day, which starts before 7 a.m., includes briefing
company officers, engaging in physical and logistical training, handling
administrative issues, attending meetings and responding to emergency calls.
Her message to women currently considering fire service: “You can
do anything you put your mind to. Don’t be discouraged when things
are hard. It’s totally worth it!”