Fire Chief Deena Lee Knows What It Takes to Ascend the Ladder of Success in a Traditionally Male-dominated Field
Grace under fire.
- Written byMichele Garber
- Photographed bySiri Berting
Growing up in Lucerne Valley, Deena Lee always had impressive physical strength and sharp protective instincts, but channeling those skills into becoming a firefighter never crossed her mind. Ironically, a simple act of responsible parenting ignited the spark that became her lifelong passion.
As a recently divorced single mom with two toddlers, Deena thought it prudent to learn CPR. She enrolled in an emergency medical technician (EMT) class, and as she recounts, “I just fell in love with it. I got 100% on all my tests and knew this is what I want to do.”
She promptly got a job in the emergency room at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, a Level II trauma center, and began taking prerequisite courses for nursing at Long Beach City College. “I found it all so rewarding and exciting,” she adds.
While working in the ER, her stamina caught the eye of local first responders. Among her EMT tasks, Deena often performed physically demanding compression, sometimes for an hour straight without tiring, and effortlessly lift and move patients. Observing her abilities, Long Beach firefighters and paramedics urged her to consider becoming a firefighter.
“I would ride along in the rescue ambulance with Long Beach fire stations, bringing patients into the ER where I worked,” she recalls. “One day—and I get the chills just talking about it—one of the doctors said, ‘Deena, you’re glowing. This is your calling. This is what you’re meant to do.’ So I switched my major to fire science.”
Deena went to a volunteer fire department in La Habra Heights and completed a 20-week academy. “I’d do a weekly 24-hour shift at the academy, work the graveyard in the ER and I was studying at LBCC,” she says. “I was just paying my dues.” She modestly omits that she was also a single mom while working, studying and volunteering.
In 2003 Deena was hired by El Segundo as a firefighter. With her work ethic and strength, she was quickly accepted by her male colleagues. “When I started here, I dragged around the heaviest guy and then they knew, ‘OK, she can pull me out of a burning building.’”
Deena thrived, and in 2007 she was promoted to captain. Her promotion, though well-deserved, was not without drawbacks—leading to a more complicated period in her career.
The leap from coworker to supervisor is always challenging, especially in the hierarchy of a fire department and before considering gender. “I had a tough couple of years,” she recalls. “Every time you promote to a higher rank, you have to prove yourself all over again. When I promoted to captain I thought everyone would accept me, but I was starting over.”
Deena had a learning curve and needed to enhance her leadership skills while navigating the complexities of being a female supervisor in a predominately male workplace. It was trial by fire, but she turned her mistakes into learning opportunities, ultimately earning her team’s respect and loyalty.
“I would ride along in the rescue ambulance with Long Beach fire stations, bringing patients into the ER where I worked. One day—and I get the chills just talking about it—one of the doctors said, ‘Deena, you’re glowing. This is your calling. This is what you’re meant to do.’ So I switched my major to fire science.”
In March 2018 Deena attended the ARISE Summit (A Reason to Include and Support Everyone) hosted by the Los Angeles County Fire Department for female firefighters in leadership positions from throughout the southland. The experience proved pivotal for her.
“I’d never seen so many women firefighters in one place. There are only two of us in El Segundo, none in Manhattan or Redondo and only a handful in Torrance. When you promote from captain to battalion chief, your uniform changes from blue to black. I believe you have to see it before you can be it. Though I’d aspired to be chief, I needed to see the next rank up.”
Seeing other women in those black uniforms reignited Deena’s ambition to pursue a higher rank. Within a year she became the first female battalion chief in the South Bay. In July 2021, when her predecessor retired, Deena became acting fire chief and was officially promoted on November 2—making her the only female fire chief in all of L.A., Ventura and Orange counties. Five months later Kristin Crowley became fire chief of the Los Angeles Fire Department, so now there are two.
“I’m always striving to be a better leader,” says Deena. “This position is completely different than what I signed up for in 2003. I was pulling hoses and throwing ladders. This is administrative. There’s politics, public speaking. I want everyone to have these skills before they ascend to this office.”
Deena serves as vice chair on the executive board of Women’s Fire Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting women in the fire service. She held Fired Up! Girls Empowerment Camp, a two-day educational experience for girls ages 12 to 19.
“It was like a dream come true, and it’s so rewarding,” says Deena. “We tell them about all the possible jobs in the fire service. They pull hoses, climb ladders, drag dummies and extinguish small fires. It builds confidence and self-esteem. You may go in thinking you can’t do it, but when you’re able to do things you couldn’t imagine doing, you realize you can do anything.”