Small Steps Up Become Big Ones As Kavanagh, Cascio Get Top FDNY Posts

Chief Leader - February 07, 2018


Fire Commissioner Daniel A. Nigro Jan. 31 promoted Laura Kavanagh to be First Deputy Commissioner and Elizabeth Cascio to serve as his Chief of Staff.

Mr. Nigro has made substantial efforts to better diversify the firefighting force. He has turned to two women who have already been key players in helping to guide the agency through tumultuous change.

Ms. Kavanagh was upgraded from Deputy Commissioner for Government Affairs and Special Projects and Ms. Cascio served as the first female Executive Officer to the Fire Commissioner in the department’s history.

Talked Out of Retiring

In 2014, Ms. Cascio had already put in her papers to retire from a distinguished career that started on the Emergency Medical Service side when Mr. Nigro recruited her to break the glass ceiling at the upper echelons of his agency. She responded to both the 1993 and 2001 World Trade Center attacks.

She is one of the nation’s leading experts on emergency medical training. She was pivotal in leading the effort to train thousands of Firefighters when they were tasked with also providing emergency medical care.

As Deputy Commissioner for Government Affairs and Special Projects, Ms. Kav­anagh played a leading role in helping to implement the 2014 de Blasio administration’s $98-million anti-discrimination settlement with the Vulcan Society, the African-American fraternal organization. She served as Assistant Commissioner for External Affairs from 2014 to 2016.

She oversaw the recent firefighter recruitment campaign—which resulted in the largest and most-diverse applicant pool in FDNY history. A majority of the candidates who took last year’s Firefighter exam were people of color. That testing cycle also saw a 115-percent spike over the last exam in the number of women taking the test, setting another record.

‘Skills and Leadership’

“Through their years of experience working closely in my administration, Laura and Liz have demonstrated an outstanding range of skills and leadership, and have shown they are exactly the people I need to continue to improve the FDNY,” said Commissioner Nigro.

Ms. Kavanagh has also been responsible for working with multiple government agencies and elected officials on budget and legislative matters. She helped roll out FDNY programs like the “Get Alarmed NYC” campaign, which installed and distributed more than 140,000 smoke alarms in homes throughout the city.

Before joining FDNY, Commissioner Kavanagh served as a Special Assistant to Mayor de Blasio after acting as a senior adviser on his 2013 mayoral campaign.

The San Francisco native said in a phone interview that she would never have predicted she would have a career in the Fire Department. “I did not think about that, primarily because I never thought it was an option,” she said.

She credited both of her parents, who were union members, with her commitment to being an advocate for social change and social justice. Her mother was a Teacher and her dad a member of the Communications Workers of America.

‘Social Justice Background’

She noted, “I went to their rallies and meetings as a kid. They come from sort of a more-traditional Catholic social justice sort of background where you give back to your community. My oldest uncle is a priest.”

For Ms. Kavanagh, who was interested in making a societal difference, a career in public service was not her first calling. “It took me a little longer in my career to think of doing that in government. It was actually after I had worked for President Obama, who actually makes a very powerful case for public service in government, that I really started thinking that I shouldn’t be just advocating from the outside, just getting people elected. I should actually do the hard work of governing, or at least give it a shot.”

Ms. Kavanagh believes that she can’t operate in her FDNY executive leadership role without remaining grounded in the daily operations of the agency by being on the scene of where the action is.

“I try to go to the fires whenever I can,” she said. “I try to go to some of the bigger [mass-casualty incidents]. I try to visit firehouses after fires and I really try to get them to talk to me to say what is your job like, not just what is putting out a fire. What’s involved with that—the day to day—what’s the firehouse like, what’s the EMT station like? What are patients like? What do they need? Because I feel the better I understand what they do, the more I can brainstorm about all the different ways that we can help.”

Caught EMT Bug Early

For Ms. Cascio, being a first-responder was an ambition from childhood. “I am from the generation that was enamored with ‘Squad 51’ and the television show ‘Emergency,’” she recalled. “When I was 10 years old, a volunteer ambulance corps began called Bravo in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and as I became aware of their existence, it was the combination of watching ‘Emergency’ and seeing them in the neighborhood. I would say to my girlfriend ‘I want to do that.’” By 21 she was an Emergency Medical Technician working out of Kings County Hospital.

Ms. Cascio served in the rank of Lieutenant in the Bureau of EMS from 2005 to 2014 supervising EMTs and Paramedics and responding to medical emergencies. From 1994 to 2002, as EMS was merged into the FDNY, she helped develop and implement a first-responder training curriculum to educate Firefighters on response to medical emergencies. Close to 10,000 Firefighters went through the training.

She told this newspaper that when FDNY brass came to her about training the entire fire side in emergency care, there was resistance in the field.

‘Not a Popular Program’

“Within the ranks, politically speaking this was not a popular program,” Ms. Cascio said. “It was not popular among the members of EMS who felt ‘they are just trying to take our job and we will be out of a job,’ and there were a lot of labor implications. The members of the [Uniformed Firefighters Association] were not pleased about this and they felt like this was something they were not supposed to be doing—that their primary mission was firefighting. There was some angst—and that would be an understatement.”

She continued, “Providing medical care was a big change...So we gave them actual training, hands-on, skills training with evaluations and testing and they left the program confident they could give the care that was necessary.”

And there were some real collateral benefits, she said. “They have saved each others’ lives. They have saved the lives of retired members,” not to mention a “countless number” of New York City residents’ lives.