City's new fire chief 'best person'


Charleston has crossed the country and the gender line to find its next fire chief.

Karen E. Brack, deputy chief in Eugene, Ore., was named Friday as the new head of the department. She is expected to start Aug. 1 and will make $137,000 a year.

Mayor Joe Riley made the announcement in City Hall.

“I’m confident I have found the very best person in America to become the chief,” he said. Brack, 55, has more than 30 years of experience in the fire service, including the past four as deputy chief in Eugene.

She succeeds Thomas Carr, who retired in March because of complications from his ongoing battle with Parkinson’s disease.

Riley said Brack will take a physical, and that he expects her to pass. He described her as an active outdoors person who hikes and bikes.

Brack becomes the second female to lead a department in greater Charleston, but the first in the city. Ann Graham is fire chief on the Isle of Palms.

“It’s just an incredible opportunity for me,” she said during a conference call with reporters.

News that a woman was selected to the top post in Charleston — ahead of three other male finalists — was applauded by diversity advocates.

“More and more women are taking on leadership roles here, and their participation enhances our efforts to make Charleston all that it can be,” Jennet Robinson Alterman, executive director of the Center for Women, said in an email Friday.

City Councilwoman Kathleen Wilson, chairwoman of the public safety committee, said gender was not a factor in her support. She cited Brack’s personality and calm demeanor, adding that she showed all the qualities of being “the right fit for the department in its current state.”

She succeeds Carr, who took over after Rusty Thomas retired in 2008. Thomas was in charge during the fatal June 2007 Sofa Super Store fire that claimed the lives of nine firefighters.

Carr is widely credited with adopting modern techniques and standards, as well as charting a more coordinated, regional approach to firefighting.

Wilson said the department still is going through what she called “growing pains.” She added that Brack has a depth of experience, including in personnel, consolidation of two municipalities into one, and labor issues.

Tom Brennan, president of the Charleston Firefighter’s Association, said the union looks forward to an “open and constructive working relationship” with the new chief.

“We believe that Chief Brack will be able to provide our department with a proper balance between fire service progression and tradition, which are not only important, but well deserved by the city of Charleston and the firefighters who protect it,” he said.

Brack was born in Jacksonville, Fla., but grew up in Savannah. Her career in firefighting includes stops in Fulton County, where she worked during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and rose to the rank of battalion chief.

One of the similarities between Charleston and Eugene, she noted, is that both are “all-hazards” organizations, meaning they are prepared for almost any response.

One difference she is looking forward to embracing, she said, is that Charleston is getting a fire boat in the coming months.

Riley said that during his interviews with Brack, the most dominant downtown fire issue of the past decade — the serial arsonist — was not a part of their discussions.

He and Brack said they are satisfied with the task force coordination being done so far with police and other federal and state agencies. She does have some arson investigation experience.

Brack was picked over three other finalists and a national pool of 61. The others who made the final cut came from Alabama, Missouri and Virginia.

While other city staff contributed to the process, Riley said the choice was ultimately his to make. He will ask City Council to endorse the pick at the May 22 council meeting.

He said her reference checks showed strong praise for her leadership abilities and her eagerness to work with people.

Not all members of council were immediately behind the pick. Councilman James Lewis said that while he supports diversity, he favored one of the other candidates who already has chief-level experience leading a department.

He conceded that the hiring choice and selection is up to the mayor.

“It’s his responsibility,” he said.