Beyond the Badge, Firefighters

Fire Captain Kelly Witt started as volunteer

Fire Captain Kelly Witt on ropes rappelling down a building.
Rope rescue training is part of the job for Kelly Witt, one of a handful of female CDCR fire captains in the state.

Witt looks back female firefighting mentors

Kelly Witt, a CDCR fire captain, has served the department for eight years, but it wasn’t her goal when she started her career.

In 2008 on a whim, Witt accepted a friend’s invitation to tour the Reserve Fire Station for the San Diego County Fire Authority. At the time, Witt enjoyed her job as a counselor at San Diego State University. But, she also wanted to support her friend and was intrigued by the station’s teamwork, facilities and mission.

Due to an initial misunderstanding on the tour, Witt was surprised when she was suddenly given the department application, a hearty handshake, and told “Welcome aboard.”

Not wanting to embarrass anyone or rock the boat, she followed the flow and became a volunteer firefighter for the San Diego County Fire Department. Her new career journey was just getting started.

Female battalion chief encouraged Witt

Witt held her position at the college while simultaneously serving as a reserve firefighter for the San Diego County Fire Authority for a few years. Then a battalion chief with the San Diego Fire Department, also a woman, told her full-time job applications would open soon, and she hoped to see Witt’s name among the stack.

“I was a little older than the typical candidate and wasn’t sure if it was too late for me,” Witt said. “One of my sorority sisters, who was a fire captain at a department out-of-state, encouraged me. She told me that she started ‘late’ as well and, if she could do it, I could do it. So I did.”

She applied with 4,800 other people. Exams were anything but easy. Getting into the program meant challenging herself physically, mentally, and emotionally. Witt flourished and found herself to be one of only 30 applicants accepted. At 32 years old, she upended a rewarding career in educational counseling to pursue opportunities in the field of firefighting.

Captain Witt is one of a handful of female fire department leaders

By 2013, Witt was hired as a correctional officer at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility (RJD).

With her combined skills of corrections and emergency response, in 2014, she achieved the role of fire captain at the institution. RJD has four fire captains, two of them women. Three more female fire captains also serve fire departments within CDCR.

Out of 126 fire chiefs and captains at CDCR Fire, as of February 2022, there are only five women serving in those roles.

“I don’t get a pass for being a girl,” she said. “I still have to hike all the hoses and everything else. Just like everyone.”

Captain Witt’s 48-hour shifts start bright and early at 8 a.m. and she says every day is different. Witt is not only responsible for dousing fires and providing emergency medical attention and training teams, but also serving as a housing unit officer and leader for the state’s incarcerated population.

CDCR Fire Captain Witt also oversees incarcerated firefighters

“A CDCR Fire Captain has a very unique role not seen anywhere else. Not only do we perform traditional firefighting functions; but, we also serve a custody role,” she said. “We train and supervise incarcerated firefighters in our vocational firefighting program. This provides them with an opportunity to learn valuable skills that will help them on release.”

She uses her experience in counseling to interact with her coworkers. Meanwhile, she uses her firefighting and fuel suppression skills to protect the state. She’s also at the ready to provide medical treatment if necessary.

Witt says the most rewarding part of the job is responding to people who need help.

“When someone (needs help) and they look up and see you coming with the bag, (it offers hope),” she said. “(If) someone fainted, or someone is having chest pains, we’re able to meet that need at that moment.”

Fire danger is ever-present threat in California

When she’s not fighting fires, she’s hiking the trails of California. She’s seeing first-hand where our drought-stricken state will need the most help in the coming months, weeks – or even days.

Witt recalls her work on the 2018 Carr Fire in Redding. She spent three weeks with her CDCR fire crew dousing spot fires and preventing the fire from spreading toward homes.

While the fire burned nearly 230,000 acres and destroyed 1,604 structures, Witt was proud to serve with her crew. Together, they fought to save eight streets of a family-friendly neighborhood.

She knew, at that moment, she made the right choice.

By Tessa Outhyse, Public Information Officer

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