A firefighter in uniform standing next to a fire truck.

VRFA Fire Marshal Karen Stewart Retires

After 30 years on a career path with a constant upward trajectory, Valley Regional Fire Authority Fire Marshal Karen Stewart has decided to retire.

Karen’s lifelong career goal was to become a teacher.  Karen attended Western Washington University, obtained her degree in Education, and began substitute teaching.  Soon after, she decided to put her teaching skills to work as a Public Education Specialist for the Kent Fire Department. As Public Education Specialist, Karen created and presented fire safety and injury prevention education programs for schools, businesses, and community groups.  Fourteen years later, she decided to embark on a new journey as a Firefighter/EMT and secured a position with the Auburn Fire Department (now VRFA).

“When I transitioned into the Firefighter/EMT position, I knew I had to continue the important work of safety education. I kept educating on almost every incident I was involved in; I just used a different delivery system. Karen also served as a Firefighter Public Information and Education Specialist, teaching in school classrooms and community events at the VRFA.

For five years, Stewart balanced 24-hour shift work along with parenting two daughters. She then tested for and obtained the position of Deputy Fire Marshal. Six years later, she was promoted to Assistant Fire Marshal and the following year accepted the position of Fire Marshal. She made VRFA history as the first female in each of those positions and was the first female chief officer.  Her advice for females going into the fire service: “Be genuine, be yourself, and work hard.  You will be challenged physically and mentally, but it will be worth it.”

As Fire Marshal, Karen engaged in a thorough review and update of policies and guidelines to direct future decisions and ensure consistent application and enforcement of the fire code. She researched and implemented technology and training that has greatly improved the efficiency of the Fire Marshal’s Office. Karen strengthened relationships with city, school, and business officials. She also began gathering the data 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, Karen 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. One of those employees, former FMO Intern Josie Courtney, said, “Karen is a thoughtful and intentional person. 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 I, Fire Plan Review, and Fire Marshal.  Karen 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.

“The impressive list of accomplishments only hints at the true value Karen has brought to the fire service. She was absolutely the right person in the right place at the right time when she took over as the VRFA Fire Marshal. Karen assumed charge of a division that was struggling to establish its identity after the formation of the new fire authority. 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 Fire Chief Brent Swearingen. “We thank her for her dedication, insight, and friendship and wish her a happy and long retirement.”

Karen plans to spend more time with her family in retirement and participate in her favorite activities, including hiking, camping, traveling, cycling, and water sports.