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Chief Deb Krebill leads the Marion Fire Department

Debra Krebill, Marion Fire Chief, is photographed next to a new aerial truck at the Marion Fire Department on Friday, Feb. 8, 2019. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Debra Krebill, Marion Fire Chief, is photographed next to a new aerial truck at the Marion Fire Department on Friday, Feb. 8, 2019. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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Deb Krebill puts out fires for a living, and, as she will tell you, she wouldn’t have it any other way.

Krebill is currently the only female fire chief of a career fire department in the state of Iowa.

“I have the greatest job there is,” she said. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Krebill started as a paramedic and firefighter in 1991 and worked her way up the ranks — from captain to district chief to deputy fire chief and then to fire chief in 2014.

She hadn’t planned on becoming a firefighter.

“I grew up on a farm, and I wanted to be a farmer like my dad. He didn’t have any sons so I did a lot of the work with him,” she said. “But you were kind of told back then that girls weren’t farmers.”

After switching majors in college from music to criminal justice, she still hadn’t found her passion.

“I was one of those people who wanted to try just about everything once,” Krebill said. “Then I saw an ad in the paper and decided that I wanted to go to paramedic school. I worked full time and took classes at night.”

While training to become a paramedic, a classmate of Krebill’s planted a seed that would eventually take root.

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“Maureen Boots was the first woman to become a firefighter for the Marion Fire Department” in the late 1980s, Krebill said. “She told me they were hiring and that I should apply. She said they train you on the job, so I figured I would give it a shot.”

The testing was tough, but Krebill passed and joined the Marion Fire Department.

“It was really by a stroke of luck. Once I got on at the department, I fell in love,” Krebill said. “I’m one of the luckiest people in the world to be able to find a job that I have such a passion for.”

Reflecting on her role as chief, Krebill says, “When I was hired, I didn’t know of any female fire chiefs. I didn’t even think about that. I just loved my job so much that I thought I would live out my career as a paramedic firefighter.”

But, as positions within the department opened up over the years, she continued to advance her knowledge and become more and more of an asset to the department.

After getting her Executive Fire Officer certification from the National Fire Academy, offers to interview for fire chief positions in the Midwest started slowly rolling in. But none of them felt like the right fit for Krebill.

“I never wanted to leave Marion,” she said. “I loved the guys I worked with. We are really like family.”

So, when the Marion fire chief position opened in 2014, Krebill seized the opportunity.

“Doors opened up, and I put in my application,” she said. “My job now is to be the visionary of the department. I prepare for growth, oversee the team and still get to go out on calls.” Today, she leads a staff of 35 career firefighters and 25 volunteer firefighters.

Interestingly, Krebill was just the second female to join the department in 1991, but no more females have joined the Marion Fire Department since that time. Her team is all male.

One of her goals for the year ahead, she said, is to diversify recruiting efforts.

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“Our problem has been the females we have had apply do not pass the physical part of the test,” Krebill said. “We are going to do more recruiting to hopefully get more women hired in the coming years.”

Other fire departments in the state have been successful in hiring women, Krebill said, noting Cedar Rapids and some of Iowa’s larger cities have quite a few women on staff. She also notes that several volunteer departments have female fire chiefs.

But she is — and always has been — in the minority. Which, she says, has only made her stronger.

“I had to fight harder to move up,” she said. “I won’t say that it wasn’t a struggle.”

Krebill said she has faced barriers and people along the way who were not supportive of female leadership. But that hasn’t put a damper on the spark that keeps her in the job she loves. And she said she’s had plenty of help along the way, with the vast majority of her colleagues supportive of her in leadership roles.

“I wouldn’t be where I’m at today if it wasn’t for the guys that I’ve worked with,” she said. “They are the ones who taught me everything when I first came on. It’s not just me — it has a lot to do with them.”

Her staff has a lot of respect for Krebill, just as she does for them.

“The team treats me wonderfully,” she said. “I’ve always worked with mostly men all my life, in all the jobs I’ve had, and we’ve always gotten along great. I bring a different perspective, and I think that goes a long way.”

A sense of humor helps, too. “There’s no line for the bathroom,” she joked.

As a first responder, of course, she’s faced difficult situations.

“Some of the hardest parts have been those left behind when we leave — the people who are still standing but dealing with loss,” Krebill said.

In those times, she remembers the purpose behind her work.

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“I can help people, and that is just so rewarding in itself,” she said. “I can’t even describe the feeling it gives you.”

As Krebill continues to look forward to growth, new initiatives and opportunities to serve, she hopes that other young people will find the kind of love for a career she’s found.

“One of the things I want to emphasize to young people is that I didn’t even know I wanted to be a firefighter,” she said. “Once I became one, I found it was the best job I could have. Always keep your mind open and the doors open. When opportunity knocks, take it.”

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