Laura Kavanagh at the head of the FDNY contingent in the parade Dominick Totino Photography.

Walking the Avenue, Blazing a Trail

The Fire Department of New York marching contingent invariably cuts a lively swathe up Fifth Avenue in the New York St. Patrick's Day Parade.

This year, the leader of the contingent also cut a swathe - while blazing a trail.

Laura Kavanagh is Acting Commissioner of the FDNY, the first woman to ever occupy the position.

If Mayor Eric Adams decides to make her the actual commissioner, she will make history twice over.

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But, in the meantime, with history already secured, Kavanagh had to consider her walk up the avenue on March 17, the ever ebullient FDNY firefighters her charge on the day.

"Yes, I am the first woman acting commissioner to lead the FDNY on St. Patrick's Day," Kavanagh told the Echo in a phone interview prior to Thursday's march.

It's fair to say that not many would have early-on picked the San Francisco-born Kavanagh as a future leader of the nation's biggest Fire Department.

Kavanagh says she was quiet as a kid and "very shy."

But there was a spark inside Laura Kavanagh, and a dream to one day live and work in New York City.

"I always knew that I wanted to be in New York," she says.

Her mother hailed from Michigan, her father from Chicago, the Irish South Side. So she brings both the West Coast and Midwest to an East Coast job that is never less than fully demanding at every hour of every day.

But Kavanagh has a nearby role model in another woman who is in a job once seemingly reserved for men. 

That would be Keechant Sewell, recently appointed as Commissioner of the NYPD. 

"Keechant is an inspiration to me," says Kavanagh.

"With what she is doing, and what I am doing, well it's a reminder that you just never know."

And indeed you just never know when it comes to the work of either department.

This year's parade pause, as it did in 2002, to remember the victims of 9/11. There was no full parade last year to mark the 20th anniversary. Also being remembered in the parade pause were those lost to covid-19.

During the pause taps echoed up and down the avenue.

For Laura Kavanagh, this moment in the parade was as clear an illustration of what the FDNY faces at any given moment.

"There is joy and celebration, and there is what we have to solemnly remember," she says.

And as for the lines of firefighters behind her?

"Well it might seem surprising that someone reserved like me is leading them. They are relentlessly outgoing," she said with a laugh.

"But when I was offered the job I knew absolutely that it was the right thing to do. I am really looking forward to leading the FDNY up Fifth Avenue, and am so proud to do so."

And proudly she did just that.