Fire Captain Kim George
On the night of this woman’s 20th Anniversary in the Fire Service, she battled the flames of the Caldor Fire and turned the credit to others. Although Kim George has been recognized by her town, colleagues and friends for her hard work and impressive career accomplishments, countless more acts of service and results of her leadership fly under the radar while quietly saving hundreds of lives. During the pivotal year 2021, Kim George’s insight changed my life unexpectedly in ways (she doesn’t know) I am determined and honored to share.
Her wisdom and legacy just might save your life, too.
There is always a way; it’s a matter of being creative and determined.
Jewel of the Sierra Nevada
Jewel of the Sierra is a name coined by John Muir for one deep, sapphire-blue natural lake at the shift of California’s eastern border. The mountain towns surrounding Lake Tahoe are popular vacation destinations for families from the San Francisco Bay Area, but are also glimmering year-round with the everyday lives of locals. The incredibly cool people sprinkled around Tahoe grew up beneath its pine trees or were drawn to the area by its beauty and outdoor activities. Hiking, skiing and mountain biking trails, including the famous Pacific Crest Trail, twist through the National Forest around the magnificent lake and granite rocks.
Unlike John Muir, my journey to admire Tahoe’s mark on my heart began by Subaru through piles of snow in 2014; and it is the women I met in Tahoe whom I’ve come to know as the real gems of the Sierra Nevada. Kim George moved to the town of South Lake in 2001 for a job as a paramedic firefighter. At only 19 years old, she’d left behind her rural youth in Brentwood to begin EMS and fire training in Livermore, then interned and became a medic in Sacramento. From the early onset of her career, she met leaders in EMS whose caring example set her on a path of effective leadership. The most stunning and treasured people she learned from were the leaders most moved and attuned to the shared humanity and core needs of others.
Real leadership, at its core, is about service. The best leaders are those who care and prioritize the needs of others.
Being regarded as a whole person (rather than as a male/female or an object on someone’s path) is a fundamental need of all people that is too often overlooked in our daily moments of urgency or automated work tasks. Many of us forget that, in any line of work, we have almost constant potential to be better leaders by serving other people as people. Kim George tries to remember and to teach her kids to remember that the needs of the people we come into contact with in our daily lives matter above all else.
The best paramedics Kim met early on and throughout her career were the ones most skilled at serving others by separating their own personal feelings, needs or reactions from a moment of service. In EMS, that is essential but not always easy to put into practice! Some people seem naturally talented (and it is really impressive), Kim explained, at communicating with each patient as a person rather than diving in hyper-focused on an objective task [to stop their bleed or check their pulse.] Our lives are about serving other human beings, but sometimes it’s hard for people to remember they are dealing with people. “It’s not a car you’re fixing; it’s a person,” Kim joked while trying to explain this facet of the job during one of our interviews. The best medics could connect easily with their patients in order to establish understanding and agreement about the response tasks rather than acting by force, self-service or auto-pilot. It is a skill to stay attuned to that fundamental need every person has for human connection and understanding, especially in moments of stress or high stakes like a medical emergency. Meeting a human being’s need for connection and care in critical moments empowers them to remember that experience as positive and provide the same for others in turn.
Good leadership lives in that return to the human beings around us — when we do our jobs and conduct our daily lives so well that we are able to bare in mind more than the physical objective directly in front of us — when we can attune to and act on needs well beyond our own. Better leadership is communicating intentions with clarity, compassion and respect, and prioritizing care for others in the follow-through. Even for the few who do it most naturally, it requires practice.
There is no self-doubt.
My questions for Kim have been scattered and often self-centered throughout this transformative year. I wanted to know the girl and the woman wearing the Captain George helmet, but I am not a trained journalist. Through the joys and fears of writing a good profile story, I’ve questioned how I could possibly do justice to her courageous life and the time she has generously shared with me. Her motives for agreeing to an interview (or 8!) and for supporting The Bikini Project stemmed from her commitment to serving people who love her community and especially from encouraging the creativity and charity work of other women in Tahoe. — And the support I’ve received from Kim has been steadfast. Her patient enthusiasm held me to bringing my ideas together in spite of resistance and shortcomings. “Could you tell me about a time that you have doubted your abilities or made mistakes that let other people down? How do you navigate feelings like that?” I was dying to know upfront as I lost the recording of our very first interview. Her answer shocked me and held me firmly accountable for moving forward. “I never had a doubt,” she explained while I could hear her passion bubbling up from underneath her soft words. Her gentle but powerful message to me was that there simply is no doubt you can do the thing you need and want to do, no matter what it is. Doubt isn’t necessary or useful. “Mistakes, on the other hand,” she reassured me with a laugh, “well, that’s how we learn.”
I knew I wanted to be a paramedic. I felt a real calling to help people. Perhaps it’s the Adrenalin junkie in me… I knew emergency response was for me and that led me to Fire. My fire academy experience was where I discovered this entire field was a good fit. Granted being very young, I feel I helped the male counterparts in my academy to regard me as gender neutral. I never saw anything I couldn’t do; it was a matter of modifying and finding ways to handle things despite not having the same upper body strength as the rest of my group. There is always a way — It’s a matter of being creative and determined. Approaching my academy as a person versus as a female firefighter brought about acceptance. We are all just people; our strengths and weaknesses collectively create variety we are capable of offering as a group. That balance is what I feel helps makes a fire department successful.
It’s all about other people.
Because her leadership is grounded in service and humility, Kim is not a person who will run to receive credit for her invaluable contributions. She does run and sweat, however, to facilitate programs outside of the daily requirements of her job. That extra effort she puts forward improves the department and the community. From Kim’s perspective, if the work to improve the department and better serve the public requires extra time and effort, then we can find a way to put in the extra time and effort while also taking care of ourselves balancing other aspects of our lives.
And she does.
Kim knows that she is a valuable member of the fire department and works incredibly hard to be. Being an effective firefighter demands physical strength and resilience; to maintain her success in her career, Kim has to build her physiology and optimize her upper and lower body strength. This means lots of self-care, weight-bearing exercise in the gym nearly every single morning of her career, and fierce recovery from physical injuries. There are natural limitations to women’s upper body strength potential compared to men’s, so Kim compensates for physical limitations like that by optimizing all the ways she can shine! There are many ways/areas where women have the capacity to become as strong as or stronger than men. (Our butt and legs, for starters!)
To Kim, it is an honor to serve the community as a firefighter and to put in the time and effort it takes to be a trusted leader in her chosen role. Putting in the time to optimize her body strength every day is critical because the lives of her colleagues and patients, any day, might depend on it.
(That is what I’d damn-sure call a real life hero.)
From Kim’s perspective, though, there’s nothing incredible or impressive about doing what it takes. “Anyone can do this,” she says with complete sincerity. “Any person can be a firefighter if they want to be and if the job is the right fit.” It is a matter of creativity and determination to do what needs to get done. It is also a matter of being comfortable with who you are and what you have to offer. As an outsider learning from Kim over this year, it has become easy to see that greatness is so straightforward and possible for Kim because of how deeply and expansively she truly cares.
So, she puts in the time.
“Some people in the department are really good at leaving work at work; I don’t really do that so much,” she attempted to explain that it is sometimes a challenge to rally participation by other firefighters in community engagement events that might be regarded as “extra” or non-requirements to the job. “Community engagement is really important,” she emphasized.
Kim is responsible for many of the public education elements of the department, including Living with Fire and Stop the Bleed collaborations. She is the one responsible for organizing the Spring 2021 vaccination clinics for the town, which provided all the resources available at the time for locals to help reduce the impact of Covid-19.
Opportunities for engagement and representation by the fire department to help better educate and serve the public are ongoing; but some are easier to pull off than others. One of the sweetest things local firefighters make time for in South Lake Tahoe is visiting tiny students in local kindergarten classrooms; firefighters in full uniform can be a scary sight for the littlest residents who may one day require a rescue. Meeting the firefighters and learning about their big uniforms helps prevent young children from feeling afraid of rescue teams who might one day come to their aid in an emergency.
Kim is a mom of two pre-teenage boys with her husband Matt. Because of the heavy sacrifice of time and commitment to her career, she often wonders the impact her schedule will have on her children. Firefighters work long shifts that require them to be away from home overnight each week for several days in a row. For parents, it doesn’t feel ideal. “It was incredibly hard when the boys were little. It definitely does not feel right leaving them overnight. Even still to this day, it’s so hard not being home. I often wonder how my schedule is going to affect them.”
At a turning point in her twenties, Kim’s first husband died tragically. Some time after beginning to recover from this life-changing experience of losing her partner, she began on a new path to realize how much potential there is for her leadership from within her role in the community. She committed to becoming more intentional about offering more through her career. Rather than passively loving her job as a firefighter paramedic, she earned her degree as a registered nurse and was promoted from Engineer to Fire Captain in 2016. In 2019, she finalized her Masters of Science in Executive Fire Leadership with an emphasis in Disaster Preparedness.
She later reflected that so much of all she has moved through may have come from a deep and painful longing born in her traumatic experiences. To inspire other people to stay in her family, to take responsible action to prevent tragedy, to live life as fully and with as much kindness & care for others as possible. (Even when others will not do the same and even when it is sometimes far from easy!) Some of her most painful efforts have been forged through patience to empower herself with a deeper sense of worthiness and compassion for her own humanity.
*Since being human is hard, then I’ll just try being super-human instead*
what I imagine to have been Kim’s thought process in her early 30s. :) She didn’t tell me that.
EVERY MOMENT IS A CHOICE.
”One of the biggest epiphanies in my life (and I’m not exactly sure where I can pinpoint it) is the whole concept of choice, the idea that most everything is our choice. How we respond to different things and how we manage our lives, every moment is a choice. And making that conscious effort to recognize that and hopefully make the good choice — it doesn’t mean we always have to — but just finding that as a reality… That was really big for me to recognize that I had a choice at one point to be a victim and continue down a negative path, or I could choose to be better. And really trying to make a conscious effort to be better has sent my life in a positive trajectory.”