From her youngest years, Valley Regional Fire Marshal Karen Stewart knew she wanted to teach.
Although the classrooms and students changed over the years, from school rooms to fire houses, from little ones to firefighters, she never lost her first love.
After 16 years with the Auburn Fire Department, now the VRFA, Stewart retired this month, closing out 16 years of her 30-year professional life bright with accomplishments and firsts.
“The impressive list of accomplishments only hints at the true value Karen has brought to the fire service,” said VRFA Fire Chief Brent Swearingen. “She was absolutely the right person, in the right place at the right time, when she took over as the VRFA Fire Marshal.”
Fresh out of high school, Stewart attended Western Washington University, where she earned her degree in education and began substitute teaching.
Soon, however, she decided to put her teaching skills to work as a public education specialist for the Kent Fire Department, for which she created and presented fire-safety and injury-prevention education programs for schools, businesses and community groups.
In 2005, Stewart embarked on a new path when the Auburn Fire Department brought her aboard as a firefighter-emergency medical technician.
“When I transitioned into the firefighter/EMT position, I knew I had to continue the important work of safety education,” Stewart said. “I kept educating myself on almost every incident I was involved in. I just used a different delivery system.”
Stewart was also a public information and education specialist, teaching in school classrooms and community events at the VRFA.
Until 2011, Stewart balanced 24-hour shift work with parenting her two daughters. She then tested for and obtained the position of deputy fire marshal. In 2017, she was promoted to assistant fire marshal, and in 2018, she was named fire marshal.
She made VRFA history as the first female in each of those positions and its first female chief officer.
As fire marshal, Stewart engaged in a thorough review and update of policies and guidelines to direct future decisions, and to ensure consistent application and enforcement of the fire code. She researched and implemented technology and training that greatly improved the efficiency of the fire marshal’s office.
Stewart strengthened relationships with city, school and business officials, and began gathering the data she needed to initiate a risk-reduction approach for all commercial buildings, ultimately leading to a safer community.
In recognition of these and many other achievements, Stewart received the VRFA Professional Excellence Award in 2018 and was nominated for Fire Officer of the Year.
In her leadership role, Stewart mentored new members of the fire marshal’s office, where one of her employees was former FMO Intern Josie Courtney.
“Karen is a thoughtful and intentional person,” said Courtney. “She has a strong moral compass that compels her to do the absolute most for those around her. Karen leads by example, never asking others to do something she would not do. She is passionate about her job, and brings a lively atmosphere to the fire marshal’s office.”
Most every day, Karen found ways to incorporate her passion for teaching into her duties and fortify her own education. While working in the fire marshal’s office, she added numerous certifications as fire investigator, fire inspector, fire plan reviewer and fire marshal.
Stewart credits Kitsap County Fire Marshal Dave Lyman, retired Bellevue Fire Marshal Ken Carlson, and other colleagues for sharing ideas and experiences that helped her and her team on a successful path.
“Karen assumed charge of a division that was struggling to establish its identity after the formation of the new fire authority,” said Swearingen. “In short order, she had implemented new programs, professionalized positions, built new relationships with our customers, and established the VRFA fire marshal’s office as a model of a well-run bureau.
“Karen leaves our department much better than she found it,” said Swearingen. “We thank her for her dedication, insight, and friendship and wish her a happy and long retirement.”
Stewart’s advice for women just entering the fire service: “Be genuine, be yourself, and work hard. You will be challenged physically and mentally, but it will be worth it.”
Stewart plans to spend more time with her family in retirement and participate in her favorite activities, including hiking, camping, traveling, cycling and water sports.