Phoenix Fire Dept. gets first female leader

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By Christina O'Haver By Christina O'Haver
By Christina O'Haver By Christina O'Haver
By Christina O'Haver By Christina O'Haver
By Christina O'Haver By Christina O'Haver
By Christina O'Haver By Christina O'Haver

PHOENIX -- The Phoenix Fire Department will soon have its first ever female leader.

Acting City Manager Ed Zuercher on Thursday formally announced the appointment of Kara Kalkbrenner as acting fire chief. She will replace 54-year-old Bob Khan, who is leaving his position as chief to help care for his elderly father.

Khan, a 31-year veteran of the department, announced Wednesday that he will retire Feb. 28 to spend time with his 82-year-old dad who has Alzheimer's disease and dementia.

"It's a horrible disease," Khan said Thursday. "I can't be a good son to my dad if I'm a good fire chief. It's hard to do both."

Khan said his father still recognizes him and they still have fun together.

"I just decided to leave a little early to be with him because I can't get that time back," he said.

Kalkbrenner, a Phoenix native, has been with the department for nearly three decades. She volunteered for two years before she started working as a Phoenix firefighter at age 19. She spent 15 years as a front-line firefighter and currently serves as executive assistant fire chief.

"She has the same experience I had as an assistant chief and then taking over the role of fire chief, so things will be just fine," Khan said. "I'm going to miss it at a personal level. Organizationally, this place is going to be hitting on eight cylinders."

Kalkbrenner is one of only 77 women in the department of 2,000 people.

"I'm honored," she said at Phoenix City Hall on Thursday. "I've paid my dues, I've worked hard, I'm a professional, I feel I'm very competent at what I do."

Khan became fire chief in July 2006 after the retirement of 28-year fire chief Alan Brunacini.

Looking back on his career, Khan said the most difficult day on the job was losing firefighter Brad Harper. The 23-year-old was killed after he was caught between an ambulance and fire truck while the crews were responding to a mulch fire.

"It's painful," Khan said. "He was the same age I was when I worked at that station. I think about Brad every day still, and I've got 2,000 Brads out there that just love the job."

Khan is credited with reorganizing the fire department, introducing new technology to better dispatch personnel and equipment, and adding fire stations in growing areas to enhance response times.

"Bob is a mentor, he's an inspiration, he's a friend and, most importantly, he's been supportive of my career for 29 years," Kalkbrenner said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.