Norwin grad takes on challenge as Pittsburgh fire bureau’s lone female

If Lt. Kari Burnham wanted to meet with other female firefighters in the Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire, they could sit around her kitchen table — with room to spare.

Burnham, a 35-year-old North Huntingdon native, is one of four women among the bureau’s 474 firefighters. One recently retired and another is eligible, Burnham said.

She believes there are not more women firefighters because of the nature of the job.

“I don’t think most people want to do this job. It’s dirty. It’s sweaty. It’s hard to do at times,” Burnham said.

Burnham, who joined the fire bureau in 2015, has been a lieutenant since January 2020. She is the highest-ranking woman in the fire bureau and the first to be promoted to lieutenant since 1995. Because of the covid-related restrictions, the promotion ceremony was delayed until this March.

“It was always my intention to seek a higher position. I kind of charted this to happen,” Burnham said in the Hazelwood station where she is based.

The first female firefighter to be promoted to lieutenant in the city fire bureau, Colleen Walz, broke the glass ceiling in a series of firsts for female fireghters in Pittsburgh — lieutenant in 1991, captain in 1995, and then as deputy fire chief in 2005.

“I hope and pray that things are far different for her,” than they were when she became a lieutenant 30 years ago, said Walz, who has been chief of the St. John’s Fire District outside Charleston, S.C., since 2013. “Being in a position as a trailblzer is not always an easy thing to do.”

The women in a fire department, more often than not, “already know somebody in the field,” said Burnham, a 2003 Norwin High School graduate.

But, for Burnham, the men in her family were not firefighters. She did talk with a male friend in a North Huntingdon fire department before she became a firefighter.

Nearly all men

Of the 373,000 career firefighters in the nation in 2018, there were about 11,000 women, according to Women in Fire, an organization based in Madison, Wisc.

“It’s always going to be a male-dominated field,” Burnham said.

The advantage for a female officer now, compared to when she was one, is that men are more familiar with women giving orders on the job, Walz said.

“It should not be seen as anything different,” Walz said.

The city is trying to address the imbalance by boosting recruitment of qualified women and minorities to be firefighters by implementing new methods that came out of a year-long Firefighter Barrier Assessment study. Pittsburgh’s population is 52% female and 28% minority, yet the applicants to the fire bureau do not mirror those numbers, Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich said in a statement.

Those recommendations have yet to be implement. They include updating the written exam to ensure the barrier to hiring women and minorities is removed, changing the physical test as a pass-fail exam that does not have a weighted score.

“Strength is diversity,” said Walz, who has more women in her department of 126 firefighters than in Pittsburgh.

Job she loves

Burnham did not move into that job seamlessly after graduating from high school. She studied graphic design at LaRoche College but knew she did not want to sit in an office all day. She graduated with a degree in criminal justice.

She worked different jobs, including home remodeling, where she was a painter. As she approached age 30, she was looking for a career change.

Burnham considered becoming a police officer or a firefighter. Either career fits her admission that she is a thrillseeker who likes rappelling and has tried skydiving.

“I always wanted to do something in the public safety field,” Burnham said. “I get to help people.”

Burnham said she “kind of naturally fell into” firefighting as a career.

“It’s different every day and that fits my personality,” she said.

Her late father, Gary C. Burnham, was relieved she did not opt for becoming a police officer. He died in July 2015, just as she was starting her fire academy training.

When she went though the Pittsburgh Police & Fire Training Academy in Highland Park in 2015, she was required to carry a hose up five flights of stairs within a certain amount of time, just like the men in the class.

“I definitely felt I had to prove myself,” Burnham said.

She was confident she could complete the training because she has been active all her life and played sports in high school.

Her passion for her profession is all over her arms. A Pittsburgh Fire Bureau logo is tattooed on her right arm. Her left arm has a tattoo of a clock with hands at 1:24 — representing her training class number. The phrase “Be Strong Be Brave Be Fearless” and “You’re Never Alone” is based on a passage from Joshua 1:9.

Once she became a firefighter, she worked at fire stations in Perrysville, Homewood and Lincoln-Lemington.

She is aware of the potential danger in the job. Not being able to see because of the smoke and “not being able to find the fire” inside a house, is one of the most dangerous situatons. The floor could be burning underneath a firefighter and “you not even know it,” Burnham said.

Despite those dangers, “I love my job,” Burnham said. “In my opinion, it’s the best job in the world.”

Lieutenant duties

At the Hazelwood fire station, she commands four firefighters — typically the same crew for each 24-hour shift, once every four days.

She is considered a “working” firefighter at calls, Burnham said. While her main duties require her “to do a size up and direct crew members on what to do,” she also helps fight the fire where needed.

“Being we are a crew of four, the lieutenant could be inside a fire building and still maintain command until a higher officer assumes command,” Burnham said.

Gaining the respect of the firefighters she directs comes with time, Burnham said.

“Respect is gained prior to ever becoming an officer, and it can be gained by how a firefighter works before they get promoted,” she said. “Being a good, respected officer takes time, as leadership skills don’t come with a new title. Those skills develop as well as respect.”

Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at 724-836-5252, or via Twitter .

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Norwin grad takes on challenge as Pittsburgh fire bureau’s lone female