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'I never thought I would land here': new EL Fire Chief Dawn Carson speaks out

September 20, 2021

On Sept. 14, East Lansing City Manager George Lahanas announced the city’s new fire Chief Dawn Carson. Since 1994 Carson has actively served in the East Lansing Fire Department, and in June of 2021 became the interim chief since Chief Randy Talifarro’s retirement that same month.

When asked if she always wanted to be a firefighter, Carson said, "I liked 'Emergency 51.' I've always had that interest."

Carson graduated with a degree in sports medicine from Central Michigan University in 1987 and obtained her masters of Organizational Management and Leadership from Siena Heights University. Working at Pennock Hospital in Hastings, Michigan, she set-up a sports medicine clinic. After a year however, Carson came to Lansing to take EMT classes at Lansing Community College, worked at Mason High School as an athletic trainer and on Grand Ledge's ambulance service during the weekends.

"I got that adrenaline rush that you get with being on calls," Carson said.

Carson began teaching at LCC as an EMS Adjunct Professor. After reading the newspaper, she saw ELFD was hiring within a year. Carson then quit her full-time job and went to school to become a paramedic and firefighter. Shortly after, she was hired at ELFD.

What solidified Carson's love for her job was helping people.

"Not every call, you're going to make everybody 100% better, but it's being there for the patient, being there for the family, trying to make a difference when you can make a difference," Carson said.

Carson is the first woman in East Lansing history to serve as fire chief.

"It's an honor," Carson said. "Kathy Van Patten was the first female here. She told me when she started here all the men's wives had to come and meet her because we slept in common corridors. Everybody's respectful ... but back in the time, things were very different. She was the trailblazer and my mentor. She always said, 'Whatever you want to do, you can accomplish.'"

When Carson began at ELFD, there were only four women out of 49 employees.

"I wasn't the first one that laid the groundwork there," Carson said. "We had to morph into the men's environment and they had to adjust to us. It's like having a whole bunch of brothers in the station with you. So, we can joke around with each other. We can have a lot of fun, and we're a very tight-knit group."

The ranking system at ELFD works as following: Firefighter, Lieutenant, Captain, Deputy Chief and Chief.

"I've come through the ranks as everybody would," Carson said. "I took on a lot of different tasks to broaden my knowledge and awareness of all the different levels within the fire department."

From 2008 to 2018, Carson served as a member of the Operations Committee, reviewing policies and equipment. She also served as a member of the EMS committee from 2010 to 2016. During 2013 to 2018, Carson was an Executive Board Member. There, she directed communications and decision-making affiliated with the union.

"I don't know if I can pick a favorite committee," she said. "Each one had its niche at the time. My last stint was doing facilities because we don't have an assistant chief. There are three deputy chiefs, each one had to pick something up. It is middle management at their level. They have to do extra jobs outside of what is normal."

Carson's said the biggest addition to her responsibilities is budgeting. Now, she said it's to network with the other departments and make sure the department is keeping up with policies and procedures.

"I'm learning all aspects of the jobs. ... Making sure I keep up on the latest and greatest, whether it's on the healthcare side or all different aspects of the department," Carson said.

Carson served as a lieutenant from 2011 to 2013. Then, until 2016, she served as a captain, where she held the roles of a station commander, acting deputy chief and supervisor before her promotion in 2021 to deputy chief.

"I live on the outskirts of the city," Carson said. "It's a stressful job, but the people I work with don't make it stressful. My happy place is walking my dog or exercising. I love to stay physically fit."

Carson said she will stay as the fire chief for five to ten years, and then give or take from there.

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"I don't think I would go to another place given my age and how much longer I choose to work," Carson said. "I work with some of the best people in the area, especially when it comes to the paramedic firefighters here."

Originally from Temperance, Michigan, when asked why she chose East Lansing, she said, "Working with high schools, I had no intention of going into the fire department. I had found something in the newspaper and said, 'Yup, I'm going to do this,' and quit my job and went to school full-time."

Carson has instructor/provider certificates in Advanced Cardiac Life Support, Pediatric Cardiac Life Support and Basic Life Support.

"Working at Pennock Hospital, when I had to establish a sports medicine clinic from the ground level, gave me a lot of knowledge about administrative concepts. ... All my learning has built on how to work with people, how to do policies and procedures ... and just working well with people," Carson said.

Treating a loved one that had passed on the job, caring for their family and helping them find comfort has been a life-changing experience for Carson.

"When I was a firefighter medic, all I had to do was cancel everything out and focus on the patient whether you could save them or not," she said. "When you start to be an officer, you have to deal with the other hard part, which is the family, feelings and emotions."

Carson said this experience has been very humbling.

"I never thought I would land here," Carson said. "I hope I do a good job. I'm going to have my bumps and I know I'm the first woman in the entire area to do this. So, if I thought it was just me sometimes, now it's only me when I go to fire chief meetings, that's crazy. It's kind of weird."

Carson has taught at LCC for 30 years in their EMT and paramedic program. She said she doesn't see herself as a role model.

"I go and teach, I do what I do, but I've had people say, 'You know what, that's what I want to do now,"' Carson said. "And I'm like, "Oh, that's kind of cool.' If I can spark just one person to step in this avenue, that's what I want to do."

On Oct. 5, the East Lansing City Council will officially swear in Carson as fire chief. The meeting will begin at 7 p.m. at the Hannah Community Building.


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