Cal Poly graduate Kate Dargan was sworn in as California’s first female fire marshal on April 4.
Appointed to the post by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dargan was promoted from assistant fire marshal. She has worked for Cal Fire since 1977.
“Cal Fire is one of the best departments in California for diversity of women. I wouldn’t yet say it’s a lot, but it’s better than many…(it’s) a department that is encouraging to work for,” Dargan said.
Some of her main goals include developing building constructions for ignition resistance homes, preventing losses from wildfires and revamping training for California’s 60,000 firefighters.
“Every year we’re training some portion of that community,” Dargan said.
Then there is the issue of residential sprinklers; though many progressive cities have them, many don’t, which causes preventable deaths, she said.
Another of her “pet projects” is one she calls “shaping the battlefield,” a term she borrowed from the military.
“I’m trying to work within fire service to connect fire prevention and fire operations,” Dargan said. “Bringing the two together will strengthen fire service as a whole.”
She has experience on both sides, as she worked as a line firefighter for many years before becoming a fire marshal.
A 1987 graduate of Cal Poly’s natural resources management department, Dargan’s classes were put to good use throughout her fire service career. She had been a firefighter for five years before she came to Cal Poly in ’81 and specialized in land use, resources, wildfire and environmental planning.
“The classes at Cal Poly allowed me to have a different vision than a lot of firefighters,” she said.
Dargan was a part of the San Luis Obispo unit of Cal Fire for many years before working in Monterey, Nevada and Napa counties. She became assistant state fire marshal in 2005.
“Being the No. 2 of operations as opposed to, say, the CEO, it’s always different; you pay attention to politics and budgets and people as well as just doing stuff,” she said. “It’s kind of a ‘buck stops here’ for most of the state firefighter training and fire code and prevention policies.”
The post is always at the request of the term of the governor, and state fire marshals usually stay for the duration of the governor who appoints them.
“(I will stay) until this governor or the next boots me out,” she said, laughing.
Dargan still maintains a strong relationship with her alma mater. She works with Cal Poly and University of California, Berkeley, to develop good land use planning, among other things.
Cal Poly’s natural resources management department has invited her to be on its FNR/ENVM (forestry and natural resources/environmental management and protection) advisory council, said Doug Piirto, natural resources management department head. She would be in good company; many others on the council also represent fire entities.
As was the case when Dargan came to Cal Poly in the ’80s, several graduates from these two majors have gone on to work for Cal Fire in recent years, Piirto said. Forty to fifty percent of the majors are women.
Dargan also provides the department with information and support for new initiatives as well as supporting existing programs, Piirto said. One new initiative that is still in development is the Disaster Management, Homeland Security and Fire Technology program, which would provide continuing education for both students and professionals in the field.
Piirto hopes that the program will become a minor or a master’s program someday, as well as providing much needed courses for professionals that want to climb up the career ladder.