Santa Clara County Fire Department is celebrating the hiring of its first woman fire chief this month.
Suwanna Kerdkaew, formerly the department’s Deputy Chief of Administration, was appointed last week by the county Board of Supervisors. She replaces former chief Tony Bowden, who has retired after being on injury leave.
The 20-year fire department veteran began her career in the biotechnology industry before pivoting to become a firefighter. She said after volunteering for organizations like Habitat for Humanity and hospitals in San Francisco, and wanted to worked in a job where she was of service to the community.
“(I made) a very conscientious effort to shift gears from where I was working,” she said,
She makes history as the fire department’s first woman, Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) and LGBT chief.
Assemblymember Evan Low told San José Spotlight that Kerdkaew’s appointment fills a void in the department’s lack of women.
“Having Suwanna as fire chief really speaks to the important opportunity to see a strong woman at the top,” he said, “helping ensure we create an environment that is inclusive for more women to serve in fire service.”
He added that it’s great to see AAPI and LGBT representation at the top of the department.
A grand jury report found in 2020 that women trying to become firefighters in Santa Clara County face gender bias, a hostile work environment, a conscious lack of recruitment and other major obstacles.
Working up the ladder
Kerdkaew began as a firefighter engineer while studying to be a paramedic, and was promoted to fire captain in 2011. In 2017, she became battalion chief and then deputy chief. She also worked as interim deputy director of county communications.
“The fire service is about hiring and fostering people who have common sense, who are teachable, who maintain a level of service commitment to the community,” she said.
During the wildfires that decimated the Bay Area region two years ago, Kerdkaew fought the major fires like the 2020 CZU Lightning Complex. She said these experiences taught her how coordinated responses to today’s wildfires must be diligently organized with strong partnerships.
“Whether it’s deployment statewide or to another incident … the mutual aid we provide, give and receive from each other has been a cooperative investment over many, many decades,” she said.
Former chief Bowden said Kerdkaew puts others first and has always done so her entire career. He recalled her “exemplary leadership qualities” fighting the 2014 Lodge Lightning Complex in northwest California near Laytonville.
“Working with her for the last 15 years, she would always do her homework, would come in very well prepared, regardless of what the situation is. I’m extremely confident in her ability and her leadership,” Bowden said.
Kerdkaew said she remembers how there were just a few women firefighters in 2002, and said the veterans in the department were the most supportive individuals.
She said the county has missed the mark on diversity when it comes to hiring and mentoring women.
“The department, I believe, had an inclusive environment, and we kind of fell off,” she said. “The pandemic put a lot of change on us, in terms of how we could hire, and who we could hire.”
In her new role, she wants to increase inclusive practices. The department has one female Latinx employee, no female Black employees and Black men are underrepresented, she said. Outreach to these groups is key to diversifying the department. She said it is crucial to prepare for the next generation of workers and ensure the department is prepared to embrace a diverse workplace.
Kerdkaew also acknowledged her representation of LGBTQ employees. She and her spouse testified before the state Supreme Court during the fight against Proposition 8, to keep their marriage recognized, and ensure their daughter is legally protected due to Kerdkaew’s risky work.
Those experiences “motivated me to ensure that people in these situations are treated fairly, equitably and without the systemic bias my wife and I had to face,” she said.
Kerdkaew said the department needs to adapt quicker and improve responses to increasingly destructive wildfires. That includes expanding programs to educate residents about where their fire zones are located and how to increase fire protection around their homes.
“We are keenly focused on the ever-increasing wildfire threat and working hard to make sure that we have the fleet and the trained personnel within the mutual aid system,” she said. “So whether the next fire comes from the east or the west or the south, or all sides, you’ll get the resources immediately to mitigate that hazard.”
Contact Natalie Hanson at [email protected] or @nhanson_reports on Twitter.