Add JoAnne Rice to the list of women making history among fire departments nationwide.
Rice, 55, a native of Warsaw, New York, was named to serve as interim chief of Gainesville Fire Rescue after Chief Jeffrey Lane’s retirement on Sept. 30.
Her promotion marks the first time in the department’s 139-year history that a female has served as chief. A 30-year veteran, Rice was also its first female assistant chief and deputy chief.
“I hope I won’t be the last,” she said recently.
Rice joins other female firefighters across the state to serve as chief. Palm Beach Gardens made national news in September with its first all-female fire crew, led by Capt. Monica Marzullo. In 2018, Rhoda Mae Kerr became Fort Lauderdale’s first female fire chief, after having managed one of the country’s 20 largest fire departments, in Austin, Texas.
Four counties in Maryland have women serving as the leader of their respective fire departments.
Rice is one of three candidates to permanently replace Lane as chief. The others are both assistant chiefs within the Gainesville department: Stephen Hesson and Joseph Hillhouse.
City Manager Lee Feldman will decide who gets the position. A national search began in August, said Rossana Passaniti, the city’s public information officer.
“Our goal is to hopefully have the fire chief position filled by the end of the year,” she said.
Lane worked with Rice before his retirement to create a smooth transition.
As interim chief, she said she wants to focus on the health and safety of everyone fighting fires.
“It takes a heavy toll sometimes, so we really have got to make sure that we are taking care of our firefighters,” Rice said. “That’s going to be a big focus of what I do.”
The two assistant chiefs have assumed the duties that belonged to Lane and Rice.
Hesson, 49, a native of Norfolk, Virginia, has been with the department for 24 years and in charge of the risk reduction bureau since 2016.
“I would like to continue to be innovative and progressive as a department,” he said. “I have a lot of community relationships that I’ve built as I’ve served as the fire inspector, and now as the fire marshal, that I think will benefit Gainesville Fire Rescue significantly.”
Hesson said he wants to be a decisive leader and connect personally with the community.
“Some of the feedback we get from people – in spite of all our efforts – is they don’t know us,” he said. “We want to make sure they know us, that they see us over and over again.”
Rice and Hesson both said they want to see more diversity in the department. Rice said the department has had more conversations recently about the racial tensions the nation is facing.
“We’re together 24 hours a day,” she said. “We’ve got to be comfortable with each other, know that we’ve got each other’s back, and know that we all have a place within the organization.”
As of 2019, 52 out of the department’s 188 sworn firefighters were people of color, including 28 who were African American. Only 10 were women.
Hillhouse, 44, a native of Live Oak, Suwannee County, joined the department 17 years ago and has been assistant chief of operations for almost two years. He wants to focus on firefighting, including “targeting vehicles and crews … slightly more specific to what the mission is.”
Noting that 80% of the department’s call load is medical related, Hillhouse said he wants more emergency response units handling those cases, with other crews focusing on fire prevention.
All three candidates said they would work together to protect the community during the transition. Public health remains a priority as the department begins its flu vaccination program.
Hillhouse said the public will be served no matter who is named permanent chief.
“We still have 200 employees that come to work every day,” he said. “What’s on their mind is making sure that the citizens are going to be safe.”
For now, though, Rice remains focused on her opportunity to serve as interim chief.
“I am so proud of this organization and proud of the people that are here,” she said. “To be able to head it is really humbling.”