Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Women take the lead at first-responder agencies

Howard County fire and police chiefs

Lisa Myers, left, became the first woman and African American to lead the Howard County Police Department while Christine Uhlhorn is the first women to lead the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services.

Many members of Christine Uhlhorn’s family have been part of the fire service, including her grandfather, father, brother and numerous cousins. She, however, is the only woman to pursue the field.

“I never really differentiated,” she said. “I just knew I was also going to be a firefighter. Looking back, when I first started saying I wanted to be a firefighter when I was a kindergartener, there were no women. I didn’t know that at that time. … My parents and my family, they never said ‘No. That is not something you can be because you are a woman’ even though (at the time) they probably realized that but they never squashed those dreams or ambitions of mine. They always agreed with me and said ‘You are going to be great’ and ‘You will be a great firefighter one day.’ To me, it was never not a possibility.”

Not only did Uhlhorn become a firefighter with Howard County’s Department of Fire and Rescue Services, but the 30-year veteran was also named the first woman to lead the agency in December.

“I have such a passion and love for the fire service,” she said. “It is in my blood. … I love the fire service and I love Howard County’s Department of Fire and Rescue Services and to be able to lead such a progressive, dynamic department is such a thrill and honor.”

Uhlhorn is not alone. A number of women have recently been selected to lead first-responder agencies around the region. In early May, Joanne Rund was unanimously confirmed as Baltimore County’s first female fire chief. That same week, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. nominated Melissa Hyatt as his pick for Baltimore County Police Chief. She would be the first woman to lead the department. Trisha L. Wolford was tapped in January to lead the Anne Arundel County Fire Department, also a first for a woman, while Lisa Myers became the first female and African American to lead the HCP in January.

“We are all friends,” Uhlhorn said. “We support each other and we encourage each other. We empower each other. Having that network of other successful women is amazing. It really makes me feel very supported and empowered and I hope I do the same for them.”

Myers notes working with Uhlhorn is “just a breath of fresh air. … We are doing joint public safety training. That is always beneficial to make sure we are responding together in coordination, and we have a great community partnership I think.”

Myers comes from police background — her father was a U.S. Army military police officer, and her uncle and cousin were at the Baltimore Police Department. Yet she initially wanted to be a funeral director. She studied mortuary science in college after seeing the care and compassion her family received when her grandmother passed away.

She stumbled into police work, getting a job as a civilian in HCP’s crime lab in 1990.

“I was working alongside a lot of officers and detectives who were doing really great work in the community,” Myers said. “I got to see firsthand what they were doing to engage the community as well as keep the citizens safe. That is what first made me want to be a police officer.”

Starting as a patrol officer, Myers worked her way up through the department serving in many roles, including as public information officer, chief of staff and commander of the human resources division before retiring last year. Howard County Executive Calvin Ball asked her to come back into the top cop spot.

“I was excited about his vision and an opportunity to come back to a really great department,” Myers said.

As women, both Uhlhorn and Myers know they bring new perspectives to their jobs.

“Men and women do things differently,” Uhlhorn said. “We use our strengths to help us accomplish whatever tasks we are trying to achieve. I think what I bring is that I look at things in a multidimensional way. I don’t look at things necessarily (in) black and white. I look at how else can we accomplish this because I’ve had to do that throughout my whole entire career.”

She never had the brute strength of some of her male counterparts when throwing a ladder, but she could get the job done just as efficiently in a different way.

“It’s about what an individual brings to a position and I think we all contribute in some way,” Uhlhorn said. “I think looking at things differently is what makes us stronger and makes us more adaptable.”

Myers believes women bring a level of empathy and compassion and a different perspective to situations that is needed in today’s society.

“You need diverse ideas, diverse options,” she said. “Being a woman of color. I understand some nuances of things in minority communities that maybe another male counterpart might not be able to understand so I can bring some perspective to that.”

Uhlhorn is making health and wellness for all career and volunteer personnel a priority during her tenure including providing a second set of turnout gear so firefighters do not have to wear contaminated gear, purchasing a fire ground support unit that will help with decontamination after a hazardous incident, and doing precancer screenings during annual physicals.

“We are really trying to be innovative and we are doing things that haven’t been done yet, definitely in Maryland and really in the Northeast,” she said.

Myers aims to continue to aggressively recruit qualified officers of diverse backgrounds to keep up with the growing county population.

“We want to make sure our officers are reflecting the community we serve,” she said. She also wants to use advanced technology to increase efficiency and effectiveness, continue to build strong community relationships and train officers to meet the growing and changing needs of the community.

Throughout her career, Uhlhorn has gone out of her way to try to empower women because she knows well the difficulties women face. She advises women to be themselves. “Be an individual,” she said. “Embrace the strengths you bring to the job. Work on the weaknesses that you identify but don’t try to be one of the guys. You don’t have to be one of the guys. What you bring makes us better. Those differences make us better.”

Women Who Lead This article is featured in The Daily Record’s Women Who Lead: A Woman’s Guide To Business. The mission of the Women Who Lead (formerly Path to Excellence) magazine is to give our readers the opportunity to meet successful women of all ages, backgrounds and beliefs and learn how they define success. Read more from Women Who Lead.

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