A courageous career

One of the most courageous careers anyone can choose is to be a firefighter. Firefighters charge into the midst of chaos, often at the risk of their own lives, to rescue people and property from dangerous, destructive flames.

What “sparked” Kristin Chilton, Lexington’s new — and first female -— fire chief to pursue such a challenging line of work?

“It was kind of by accident,” said Kristin, who was promoted to chief in March. During her senior year at Transylvania University, she visited the fire station on East Third Street as part of a first-aid class she was taking. There she met Lisa Daley, Lexington’s first woman firefighter. Lisa encouraged Kristin to do a ride-along on one of the fire trucks.

“I thought, ‘Why not?’ I was always trying to learn something new and see what’s out there,” Kristin said.

She thoroughly enjoyed each ride-along she went on. Lisa continued to urge her to apply for a position as a firefighter.

“She kept saying, ‘You would really be cut out for this. You seem to be really motivated and you like the physical part of the job,’” Kristin said.

She worked in several jobs that corresponded to her business management degree, but nothing really lit a fire for her careerwise. “It was just so boring. Nothing seemed exciting,” she said.

She began to seriously consider taking Lisa’s advice.

“I’m not a person who likes to be confined to a space,” Kristin said. “I like to be out and about and going and doing. With firefighting, you never knew what the call was going to be. Every day there was something different.”

Finally she applied during an open application process and got hired in 1993. She was the only female recruit in her class.

“There were days where I would feel overwhelmed, but the guys were encouraging,” Kristin said. “It takes a while to gain confidence in what you’re doing. You just have to be willing to stick with it.”

Kristin has served the fire department as a lieutenant, captain, major, battalion chief and assistant chief. She represented the Lexington Fire Department as a member of the Kentucky Fire Commission for 13 years. She is a board member of the Fraternal Order of Firefighters and a member of the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services.

The fire department is actively recruiting women to join its ranks, hosting sessions where women can talk to women firefighters and learn about careers in fire service. There are currently 14 women in the department; a 15th is in the academy.

“We have a very diverse community, and for the fire department to do the best job we can do, we have to be diverse to meet the needs of our community,” Kristin said. “My mission is to work on diversity in the division. That’s very important to me.”

Kristin has had her moments where people assumed a male firefighter at the scene of a fire was in charge. They were often surprised when they learned Kristin was the crew chief to whom they needed to talk. Breaking down those kinds of barriers can be as tough as trying to put out a raging conflagration, and just as courageous.

“I think we’ve come a long way, but we’ve still got room to improve,” Kristin said.

Preparing for a Career as a Firefighter

Joining the Lexington Fire Department takes a long time, says Fire Chief Kristin Chilton.

“You have a written portion, a physical agility portion and an oral interview,” she said. “You have a very detailed background investigation, a polygraph test, a psychological evaluation with a psychologist and drug testing. It’s a very complicated, long procedure.”

Applicants must be between the ages of 19 and 35 years. They must be high school graduates or have a GED. They must undergo background checks of both their state and national criminal history records and driving records and verify their employment history.

They must take a written examination that measures their knowledge, abilities, aptitudes and innate problem-solving ability. Candidates have to achieve a minimum score of 70 percent on the written exam in order to move forward in the hiring process.

In the next phase, they must pass a medical exam and a physical agility test that consists of eight physical tasks that simulate actual firefighting duties, such as climbing stairs, dragging hoses, working with ladders and doing a search and rescue, a forcible entry and a ceiling breach and pull. Candidates must also have an oral interview with a panel. They must “demonstrate excellent moral character with respect to sobriety, honesty, maturity, loyalty, trustworthiness, reliability, discretion and associates.” All this is followed by 22 weeks of intensive training. For more information or to access the application, go to