After leading efforts to diversify the FDNY’s firefighter roster, Center for Homeland Defense and Security alum Laura Kavanagh has taken that diversity to the highest level.
In October 2022, Kavanagh (Executive Leaders Program cohort 1802) was appointed the first female FDNY Commissioner, the top civilian administrator leading the largest municipal firefighting organization in the U.S. and the second-largest in the world with nearly 11,000 uniformed firefighters, more than 4,200 uniformed EMS employees, and nearly 2,100 civilian staff, as well as a $2 billion annual budget.
While Kavanagh said it will take her some time to fully understand the significance of her historic appointment as an individual and a woman at the 157-year-old organization, she said she realizes it “tells other people that it’s possible.”
“A lot of people inched the door open before me,” Kavanagh said. “I hope one day this is normal.”
Kavanagh, who still stays in touch with her fellow CHDS ELP cohort alums, said her experience at CHDS helped inform her work and success at FDNY.
“It really folds into a philosophy I have about leadership; it’s all about relationships,” she said.
As acting FDNY Commissioner, Kavanagh was responsible for appointing CHDS alums John Hudgens (ELP cohort 2022) and John Esposito (Master’s cohort 2009) to top leadership positions—Chief of the Department and Chief of Fire Operations, respectively. She called them both “strong leaders,” while noting that she would have been “hard-pressed” to find top leaders at FDNY without a CHDS connection, and adding that it speaks to the relationship between CHDS and FDNY built over decades.
Kavanagh said her top priorities for the FDNY include: encouraging further staff development, noting that “our people are our secret sauce,” and continuing to grow a “diverse group” of leaders; increasing innovation, including providing access to the latest technology because FDNY is the “best department in the world and we deserve the best tools and technology,” and improving safety by mitigating long-term risk by making communities themselves safer through education and outreach aimed at continuing to “grow the bonds between the department and the community.”
As First Deputy Commissioner, Kavanagh oversaw the FDNY firefighter recruitment campaign that resulted in the largest and most diverse applicant pool in the department’s history and led to more women serving as firefighters in the FDNY than ever before.
Kavanagh also earned recognition for securing funding for renovations to firehouses and EMS stations across New York City’s five boroughs, overseeing the implementation of fire and EMS call-taking operations at the city’s state-of-the-art emergency call center in the Bronx, the planning and implementation of technology upgrades at the current emergency call center in Brooklyn, development of an in-house computer-aided dispatch system, and more.
She also served as a key leader in the FDNY response to major incidents including the COVID-19 pandemic and the Ebola outbreak of 2015.
Before joining FDNY, Kavanagh worked at City Hall as a special assistant to then-Mayor Bill DeBlasio.
In addition to CHDS, Kavanagh is an alum of the Stanford Graduate School of Business Summer Institute, and has a BA in Political Science and International Relations from Whittier College and a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.