Apparatus Engineer Lori Kneebone-Karst On a Career of 'Being Visible'

Lori Kneebone-Karst smiles out the driver's side window of Engine 3
Lori Kneebone-Karst had no idea women could be career firefighters. At 20 years old, she was a volunteer firefighter in Mankato, Minnesota. But it wasn't until she met a woman doing the job professionally that the light bulb went off.
"I never thought of this as a career for a woman until I saw it, so to have that visual is very important."
Kneebone-Karst strove to be visible ever since. Once she realized she wanted to pursue firefighting as a career, she set out to find the right department to call home. She leaned on a directory from an organization called Women In the Fire Service, and two departments jumped out at her for the number of women already in their ranks: Seattle and Madison.
"I specifically sought out Madison because of the diversity," she remembers. "When I found out that Madison hired their first women in 1980, I kept those foremothers in the forefront of my mind my whole career, because they're the whole reason I came here."
Kneebone-Karst was hired to the Madison Fire Department in 1994. She spent her first years on the west side at Fire Station 7 and downtown at Fire Station 1. She enjoyed being downtown, where she could make an impression in a high-visibility place.
"When we would drive down State Street and I would wave to the kids, sometimes moms would point to me and say, 'Look at that girl! She's a firefighter!'" she remembers. "I loved being the 'diverse' part of a crew."
Lori Kneebone-Karst sprays water at the Hotel Washington fire, 1996
Firefighter Lori Kneebone-Karst sprays down hot spots at the Hotel Washington fire, February 18, 1996.
After transferring to Fire Station 5, an east side territory where she also lived, Kneebone-Karst got thinking about other ways to connect with the community in a positive way. Soon, Firefighter Fun Day was born, a chance for the community to visit the firehouse and meet firefighters without the emergency.
"It just bothered me that we see people on their worst days," she said. "We talked as a crew— wouldn't it be cool to have them meet us on a good day? So we created Firefighter Fun Day."
Bringing the department and the community together was a hallmark of Kneebone-Karst's career. On the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, she helped launch the "Never Forget" blood drive, an annual event that joins forces with the Madison Police Department on a day of remembrance.
"Sometimes we think of September 11, and you don't think of good things, but I wanted there to be good thoughts on that day," she said. "What better way than to invite people into the fire station to give blood, where everybody is welcome to do good?"
Over the last 13 years, the Never Forget Blood Drive has grown from 35 donations in its first year to an average of 200 people annually.
Lori Kneebone-Karst next to an American Red Cross blood donation vehicle
Kneebone-Karst at the 2012 'Never Forget' Blood Drive
Kneebone-Karst also volunteered her time to CampHERO, the annual summer camp that helps girls build confidence and character while learning about the emergency services. When Kneebone-Karst received a thank-you card from one of the campers, with a hand-drawn depiction of an all-girl crew fighting a fire, she knew she made a difference.
"That just made my heart grow so big that this little girl gave me a card that embodied what I believed in, that she sees the diversity I never saw, and she sees that girls can do it," she said.
Lori Kneebone-Karst assisting CampHERO girls spraying a fire hose
Kneebone-Karst with campers from CampHERO (Photo credit: Craig Schreiner, Wisconsin State Journal)
Now, after launching a number of initiatives that have become department tradition, Kneebone-Karst looks forward to enjoying life at a slower pace in retirement, savoring the time she has with her wife, step-children, and grandchildren. 
But she'll miss driving a big truck! That's why she acquired her Commercial Driver's License and dreams of becoming a part-time dump truck driver someday— just so she can drive another big rig.
Kneebone-Karst with her last crew at Station 14
Kneebone-Karst (center) with members of her last crew at Fire Station 14

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