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Hail to the Chief: On the Record with East Lansing Fire Chief Dawn Carson

On Sept. 20, 2021, the crack was widened in the glass ceiling for women, and history was made as Dawn Carson was sworn in as the first female chief of the East Lansing Fire Depa…

On Sept. 20, 2021, the crack was widened in the glass ceiling for women, and history was made as Dawn Carson was sworn in as the first female chief of the East Lansing Fire Department.

There were few women in fire service when she began her career in 1994. Women had to overcome the opinion that they weren’t strong enough to do the job. Even as they were passing agility tests that some men weren’t successfully completing, Carson said thick skin was important as women had to prove themselves capable.

“It takes a lot of work, regardless of your gender, to move up the ladder,” Carson said.

Twenty-seven years later, she stepped into her new role.

While some women have struggled with doubters as they achieve significant titles, Carson said her experience was different.

“I feel I have had a great deal of support along the way,” Carson said. “Chief (Randy) Talifarro, whom was my last chief and mentor, was a good role model; and he encouraged me to take classes and obtain certificates that would prepare me.”

Those included acquiring her master’s degree from Siena Heights University in organizational management, National Fire Protection Association Fire Inspector I certification and a Professional Emergency Management credential.

Carson is humble but confirmed the hard work her position requires. When asked for advice she’d give any women considering a role like hers, she said education is key.

“Get as much education as you can,” Carson said. “There are numerous opportunities out there.”

Education has been at the forefront of her life. Growing up in Temperance, Carson attended Central Michigan University to get her bachelor’s degree in sports medicine. She attended Lansing Community College studying to be an emergency medical technician as a hobby and worked at Grand Ledge Ambulance for three years on weekends. She’s taught at LCC as an EMT adjunct professor for 30 years and also as a paramedic instructor. Carson is now retired from her teaching life due to her busy schedule but also recalled completing the sign language program from LCC.

“This was spurred by having a deaf patient I could not communicate with,” she said. “One basic class turned into an entire program.”

For Women’s History Month, Carson effortlessly recalled a woman who inspired her.

“This question is easy,” Carson said. “Kathy Van Patten. She was the first female in the fire department here in East Lansing. She was a role model and supporter for me. She always told me I could go as far as I wanted. It would just take hard work and determination. She still lives in the area.”

Carson has enjoyed serving the citizens of East Lansing even in their most difficult times.

“I have a passion for serving, which has made my career one I enjoyed coming to every day,” she said. “Do what you love, and it never becomes work. I have enjoyed my career, and it is an honor to serve in the position as chief. I owe many thanks to the role models before me.”


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