Deputy Fire Chief Julie O’Berg has been appointed as the interim leader of the Spokane Fire Department, marking the first time a woman has held this position.
The announcement, made by Mayor Lisa Brown’s administration, comes as the city embarks on a national search for a permanent replacement for outgoing Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer.
O’Berg, who has been with the department since 2020 as the deputy chief of operations, takes over following Schaeffer’s mutually agreed retirement with the administration, effective January 15.
Schaeffer, who has been the chief for nearly eight years, will assist in the transition until the end of March.
During this period, Assistant Fire Chief Tom Williams will manage day-to-day operations.
Julie O’Berg’s appointment is a significant milestone in the department’s history.
O’Berg expressed her commitment to the role, saying: “I look forward to working with both department and city leadership to provide stability and ensure that the department is positioned to excel at our mission.”
Her experience includes 28 years with the Overland Park Fire Department in various roles, including firefighter and paramedic.
The Spokane Fire Department faces challenges such as grievances and unfair labor practices concerns.
Spokane Firefighters Union President Randy Marler highlighted the need for new leadership, stating: “We’re excited about a change in new leadership.”
Marler also mentioned that there have been issues stemming from department and city leadership, not solely from Schaeffer.
In his comments, Schaeffer acknowledged communication difficulties during the transition but attributed them to the chaos typical in such situations.
He stated: “Any challenge with communication, from my view, was related more to the transition team not having access to the bureaucratic system.”
Schaeffer also expressed understanding of the need to adapt to a chaotic environment and stay focused on the mission.
The Spokane Firefighters Union has filed several labor practice complaints before the state’s Public Employment Relations Commission, indicating ongoing disputes.
Mayor Brown acknowledged discussions with union representatives about their concerns and noted that conflicts between unions and leadership are not unusual.
The Spokane Firefighters Union Political Action Committee contributed to Mayor Brown’s mayoral campaign and other local candidates.
This involvement in local politics reflects the union’s active role in community and civic matters.
Julie O’Berg’s appointment as interim chief of the Spokane Fire Department represents a notable change in the leadership dynamics of the department.
Her role comes at a time when the department is grappling with internal challenges, including labor disputes and the need for organizational improvements.
The transition from Chief Schaeffer to O’Berg signifies a shift not only in leadership style but also in addressing the issues raised by the Spokane Firefighters Union.
This change may bring fresh perspectives to longstanding issues and pave the way for more effective collaboration between the department and the union.
Additionally, O’Berg’s leadership as the first woman in this role could inspire greater diversity and inclusivity within the department, setting a precedent for future appointments.