Lauraleigh Avery grew up with a fire department, then became a firefighter, then assistant fire chief. She’s now been named the first firefighter and woman to lead the Orange County, Fla., EOC as county emergency manager.
Lauraleigh Avery recently took over as Orange County, Fla.’s emergency manager and does so as the first woman and at one of the most volatile times in history.
The former assistant fire chief for the Orange County Fire Rescue department, Avery was announced as acting emergency manager in October 2019 after having been assigned to the EOC in September of that year during Hurricane Dorian. She brings 27 years of firefighter experience, and then some, to the job. She takes over amid the coronavirus pandemic, the upcoming hurricane season and the country’s recent protesting. The EOC has been activated for more than 80 straight days, a record.
Avery’s mother was an executive assistant with the Maitland Fire Department from the time Avery was about eight and by the time she was a teenager, the thought of becoming a firefighter herself was beginning to resonate.
“I got to know all the firemen and the chiefs very well, and from being around them they really just encouraged me to want to become a firefighter,” Avery said. “I wanted to be in that environment, they were so compassionate. My mom was a single mom and they were always around helping.”
Avery absorbed from the firefighters that feeling of being a part of something bigger than herself and dedicated herself to a greater cause. She became a firefighter and during her 26-year career rose to the rank of assistant chief, which she held for seven years.
Along with being the first woman, she is the first firefighter to lead the EOC.
“Having a certified member to lead the emergency management team comes with such a tremendous benefit,” said Orange County Fire Rescue Public Information Officer Carrie Proudfit. “She’s seen disasters from so many different angles, including being on the ground in those first hours when a community needs you, and she stays until the job is done. It gives her a unique perspective where she can understand what’s happening out there in the field as well as what needs to happen behind the scenes to help her community heal.”
The job of emergency manager has become diversified, especially lately as the coronavirus pandemic forces different strategies on first responders as they prepare for things like hurricanes.
“Everyone thinks that all emergency management does is hurricanes, and that is so far from the truth,” Avery said. “We’re handling the COVID-19 pandemic, we managed a tornado last weekend, we’ve got that activity going on in the community now as we start hurricane season, having had three storms.”
Avery said it’s her understanding of the community and 27 years of incident management as well as that certification that gives her a leg up in the position. She’s also taken about 20 FEMA courses to prepare herself.
She also has that time last fall in the EOC as experience. “I was trying to educate myself in the EOC operations so I could lead my team,” she said. “During Hurricane Dorian, we were short-staffed, and they brought me over to help them manage. When our emergency manager retired, in my opinion, I was a natural fit.”
She said being the first woman to lead Orange County Emergency Management could motivate other women to be their best. “I think it encourages other women in our community. My mother always told me that you can be or do whatever you want if you set your mind to it. I think it’s exciting not just for right now, but for some day when I’m gone to set the expectation, the example of what can be.”