Thanks to stricter fire codes, fireproof building materials and protective devices like smoke alarms, the number of fires responded to by municipal fire departments has dropped precipitously in recent decades.
Unquestionably, that is a good thing. But for the fire departments themselves, this development has led to an evolution in job responsibility, with firefighters taking on a new role as medical responders.
Fire-Dex, a family-owned and female-run manufacturer of personal protective equipment, has made that pivot, too.
“We’re small and nimble enough to make those changes very quickly,” says Fire-Dex President Lauren Burke DeVere. “We’ve invested in our product development team, because the market is always going to change and the need is going to change. We’re able to adapt to that very well.”
That ability to adapt has led to double-digit growth for Fire-Dex, which was founded in 1983 and is headquartered in Medina, for each of the last 10 years.
When Burke DeVere, the eldest daughter of chairman and owner Bill Burke, became president in 2021, the company began a shift in focus from small to mid-sized fire departments to what are called “metro” fire departments representing larger cities and counties.
“When I joined in 2019, we had five metro accounts,” Burke DeVere says. “Today, we have 40.”
With a mission “to serve those who serve,” Fire-Dex protects tens of thousands of firefighters across the country each day. The company has around 550 employees at 13 locations — three manufacturing plants and 10 cleaning and repair facilities under the sister subsidiary Gear Wash, which is run by Burke DeVere’s sister, Taylor Burke Gilman — across the country.
Fire-Dex designs and manufactures one of the most comprehensive and trusted lines of firefighter turnout gear available across the globe, including a broad and versatile offering of alternative PPE for other types of emergencies, from wildland fires to medical calls to natural disasters to search and rescue missions. On the increasingly high volume of non-fire calls that don’t require the same amount of thermal protection — like motor vehicle accidents and emergency medical calls — the lighter gear sold by Fire-Dex helps firefighters maintain their body’s core temperature and prevent them from becoming overheated.
The company continues to acquire additional manufacturing capabilities to meet this niche market’s needs.
“We have a proprietary fabric that’s the most lightweight, breathable composite on the market,” Burke DeVere says. “A lot of firefighters are dying from heat exhaustion, so we’re constantly trying to make the gear lighter and more breathable.”
Fire-Dex aims to take care of its own employees as well as it takes care of the firefighters out in the field. Because of the long hours in close confines, fire stations often take on the feel of family homes. Fire-Dex’s company culture fits that theme.
In her time as president, Burke DeVere has only strengthened the family philosophy. She was an enthusiastic campaigner for benefits that go beyond a paycheck to help associates lead healthy, happy lives.
During her tenure, the company has continued diversification in the workforce, created more consistent scheduling for hourly positions and “no meeting days” that help associates prioritize focus time, implemented paid parental leave and adoption and foster child placement leave, and created Fire-Dex’s LEAD (Lead, Engage & Accelerate Development) initiative to prepare future leaders. The creation of the Opportunities for Improvement program, in which associates offer suggestions to further foster a productive work environment, has led to, among other things, more daily fresh food options being made available to the onsite workforce.
For this and more, Fire-Dex was recognized 2023 Smart Culture Award by Smart Business.
“A lot of our employees have been here since before I was born,” Burke DeVere says. “We have over 20 employees who have been here for over 20 years. We truly take care of one another, and we embrace employees’ families, as well. It’s not just about the employee but also those at home.”
It truly became a family business when Burke DeVere joined as metro sales manager in 2019 after beginning her career in corporate America in staffing and recruiting. She entered a male-dominated industry in which, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, just 5 percent of all career firefighters are female and women are also underrepresented in organizations and agencies that directly support fire departments. But Burke DeVere has gained trust and respect from customers, distributors, suppliers and colleagues by helping Fire-Dex adapt and grow.
“When I first got moved into the role, there was a little bit of doubt and questioning when I was in those meetings, like, ‘Is she going to be able to understand and relate to what we’re doing on a day-to-day basis?’” Burke DeVere says. “But it’s been awesome. There are more and more female leaders in the fire space than there were. It’s so cool to learn from them and their obstacles and challenges. I think you just have to prove yourself.” ●