Groundbreaking ODU Alumna Answers the Call to Serve
March 19, 2021
By Maya Reid
Old Dominion University aluma Donna Brehm graduated in 1978 with a Bachelor of Science in biology, but her love for science and a Navy man changed the trajectory of her life. From being Virginia Beach's first female deputy fire chief to owning her own business, Brehm has aimed to inspire her community.
"I fell in love with a Navy man stationed in Hampton Roads, and we got married that summer and I worked and studied to complete my degree," Brehm said.
Brehm, originally a student at Bucknell University, followed her heart, moved to Virginia and transferred to ODU.
During her last two years at ODU, Brehm began volunteering at the Thalia Volunteer Fire Station in Virginia Beach.
"I fell in love with the profession," said Brehm, a former high school athlete who easily met met the physical challenges of firefighting.
There were other challenges, however.
"As a woman, I was not readily accepted but just kept showing up and participating in drills and training sessions," she said. "At that time, Virginia Beach had about 75 paid firefighters and I made the decision I wanted to be one."
In the summer of 1978, she was hired as the first female firefighter in Virginia Beach.
She quickly realized how much each of the areas of science that she studied at ODU helped her.
"I can't tell you how much my education helped me progress through rookie school," Brehm said. "Chemistry supported hazardous materials and fire behavior classes, biology helped me through emergency medical training, and physics helped support my understanding of hydraulics and mechanics."
Over the next 35 years, Brehm was promoted to lieutenant, captain, battalion chief, district chief and lastly, deputy chief.
"Over those years, I earned my MPA (master of public administration) from Golden Gate University, had two children, served on a number of national fire service boards, wrote a few fire service articles, and spoke to hundreds of young women about nontraditional roles for women," she said.
She retired from the fire department in 2009 and moved into a consulting role in the field of emergency management training and exercises.
"After Sept. 11, 2001, I became significantly engaged in Virginia Beach's post-event response and recovery efforts to the event," Brehm explained. "The areas of planning, preparing and training for significant natural and man-made events captured my attention and energy."
During this time, the emergency management team was small, so Brehm to immediately dove in to assist in grant planning and management as well as response coordination and hiring additional staff. Brehm's efforts led to the development of a new Citizens' Emergency Response Team initiative.
Brehm's experience led her to create her own business, FusionEX LLC, in 2014. The company specializes in emergency management training and exercises, working closely with clients to develop exercises to test their emergency disaster response plans, and to develop and fine-tune their processes. Recently, Brehm has been helping agencies to evaluate their responses to COVID-19.
Helping others continues to be at the forefront of her life. Brehm manages the food pantry for her church. She has dedicated herself to serve those in need and continues to support them during the COVID- 19 pandemic while still implementing all CDC protocols.
Brehm strives to set an example for young women in STEM. She added that her degree from ODU paved the way for her achievements.
"Everything I learned at ODU supported my success," she said. "Whether it be literary skills, biology, chemistry, anatomy and physiology, mathematics, computer sciences or physics, there was always an element of sciences in nearly every aspect of the fire service."