Karen Brack may be the first person to frame the role of the Charleston Fire Department in terms of economic development.

“I justify my existence because we want to help you drive the economic engine,” the fire chief said.

People come to Charleston to see the historic structures, so she figures the Fire Department needs to protect them. But she admits that it’s that same historic significance that makes the job harder, because if one historic home or building catches fire, it’s likely to spark two or three more.

That’s just one of the challenges Brack faces.

The traditional nature of the department was a big draw for her, and she said the application process revealed a lot about a department that knew it needed to make significant changes after what is now often simply referred to as “the fire.”

What might be most surprising is that Joe Riley, the mayor some people love to hate, was a significant factor in her decision.

“You don’t often get an opportunity to work for somebody like Joe Riley, she said, who folks across the nation think of as “the icon of mayors in America.”

A slow, steady climb

Brack spoke Thursday with Center for Women Executive Director Jennet Robinson Alterman as part of the center’s ongoing Women and Power series. For the dozen or so people in attendance, this was a rare chance to hear from the person who commands hundreds of men, and one woman, in the Fire Department.

That gender disparity wasn’t lost on Alterman, who told the group: “In a city like Charleston, the powers-that-be chose the most qualified candidate, and it happened to be a woman.”

Though in a different life, she admits she might have been a botanist. She spent some time with Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources in the fish and game division, which she left because, as she said, “I did not like the gun thing,” as well as that state’s Department of Transportation writing environmental impact studies. (Maybe Charleston County can hit her up for a new one for the 526 completion.)

She has worked her way up the fire service ladder, so to speak, starting as one of two women in a class of 28 recruits in Georgia at age 26.

You can imagine there might have been some tension for a woman entering such a male-dominated field 30 years ago.

Brack counts herself lucky that her first supervisor was one of the first African-Americans to be hired to work at an Atlanta-area fire department in the 1960s. He sat her down and told her she needed to pick her battles.

She admits to taking on some fights that she lost. But she clearly doesn’t dwell on them.

First responders

The simple fact is that many people don’t realize how often the Fire Department is involved in their day to day lives.

“We are the answer to any problem that comes up with unless it has to do with breaking the law,” Brack said.

That’s a pretty significant responsibility. And she doesn’t take it lightly.

She’d really like it if everybody installed smoke detectors, learned CPR, and installed a residential sprinkler system, the last of which she called the wave of the future (you can hear the downtown homeowners groaning already).

But regardless, Brack and the Fire Department will be there, as a community resource, as first responders, early interveners, whatever is needed.

That’s what Charleston got when they hired Brack, and it sounds like they picked the right leader.