Alumni Profile: Fresno Fire Chief Kerri L. Donis

Fresno is the fifth-largest city in California, with a population of over 525,000; but with a close-knit sense of community, it sometimes seems like a small town.

It’s not unusual for a local athlete in Fresno to become a community leader, or for people there to start at the ground floor and work their way steadily to the top. Just ask National University alumna Kerri Donis.

A former Softball player for the Fresno State Bulldogs, Donis is a 20-year veteran with the Fresno Fire Department (FFD). Her teams went to the College Women’s World Series three times. She started as an entry-level fire fighter in 1996, before advancing to Engineer, Captain, Deputy Chief, and then Fire Chief. The focus, consistency and dedication she developed on the diamond translated well to the workplace.

“I have positioned myself throughout my career to take advantage of every promotional opportunity that came my way; and prepared for new challenges,” said the 2006 graduate with a Master of Science degree in Organizational Leadership.

In June 2013, Donis was named interim Fire Chief. Six months later, she became the FFD’s 15th Chief and first-ever female leader in its 139 year history. She said her master’s degree from National University was “essential” to becoming a Chief Officer.

“I knew it would help to further my career,” Chief Donis added. “I wanted to balance my professional and personal life while continuing my education, so I looked at several universities before choosing National. It provided me with the flexibility to study while still managing a full plate professionally as Deputy Chief.”

Today, Chief Donis oversees more than 330 employees with a responsibility to protect the safety of more than half a million citizens and just over 112 square miles of real estate. As part of the state’s master mutual aid system, the FFD was also involved this past summer in containment of the Meadow Fire in nearby Yosemite National Park and the Rough Fire in the Sierra National Forest.

“We frequently come to the aid of neighboring counties, and sent our resources to Yosemite and the Sierra’s over the summer to assist the strike teams there,” said Chief Donis.

Closer to home, the Chief has launched the Firefighter Community Outreach Program which encourages her firefighters to establish relationships and team up residents within their respective fire districts. She has also reached out to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and other foundations, raising more than $4.6 million to expand staff, purchase modern equipment, and improve prevention programs.

Chief Donis’ goals are much the same as any college softball team bull pen or base runner: put out the fire and go home safe.

“We respond to one-to-two structural fires every day in addition to all of our medical emergency calls, so we’re a very busy department,” she said. “My job is to make sure that we have the resources to meet our daily challenges, and I also want to make sure that everyone returns home in good health at the end of each shift.”