Before Lori Luhnow and Cathy Farley became leaders in law enforcement and Erin Alexander Brown a fire fighter, they played high school and college sports.
All three credit their background in athletics and the values they learned from being on a team in helping them earn their jobs in male-dominated professions and becoming successful at them.
That was part of the message they shared with several local high school and college student athletes in attendance at the Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table’s annual Women & Girls in Sports Luncheon at the Earl Warren Showgrounds on Monday.
Luhnow is the Chief of Police for the City of Santa Barbara, Farley is the Assistant Chief for the UC Santa Barbara Police Department and Brown is an engineer and fire-line medic for the Newport Beach Fire Department.
Luhnow said she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do after finishing college at UC San Diego, where she played on three NCAA national championship volleyball teams.
She said her twin sister, Lisa, was recruited by the Department of Fish and Game and told her about the competitiveness and competition in the police academy.
That sounded great to Lori.
“Wow, let me give it try,” she said. “The worst thing I can say was I was a cop.”
When she looks back at those early days, she realizes, “because I was an athlete and dedicated to my sports, it kept me out of trouble. People make choices these days early on in life that eliminate the opportunity of public safety for them, because of their background. So, keep those values you have as athletes and consider yourselves athletes for the rest of your life. Make sure you do what is best. It’s all about serving and being part of a team. It had a huge influence.”
Farley said she got exposed to law enforcement when she was a student at UCSB. She did work study with the Isla Vista Foot Patrol and her co-workers told her she a knack for the work.
“I started to get recruited and it was really neat to see the influence from mostly male officers, saying, ‘You’d be really good in this job. You’re physical and smart and tenacious, and you really talk well with people.’
“I was recruited by the UCSB Police Department to become an officer.”
Brown was a basketball star at Santa Ynez High and UCSB — she was the Big West Player of the Year in 1997 for the Gauchos. After her college career, she gave the WNBA a shot and made the L.A. Sparks roster. She was later traded to the Utah Starzz and finished her pro career that season.
The transition to a new career started when she entered the Fire Technology Office at Santa Ana Community College.
“I walked in and there was this old, traditional fire chief. I basically told him I wanted to be a fire fighter and he said: ‘You want to be a firefighter,’” she recalled him saying, derisively. I said, ‘Thank you,’ and that just gave me the motivation I needed. I knew what I was going to do and do it to the best of my ability and prove that guy wrong.”
The training was tough, but Brown said coach Mark French pushed her to her limits when she played for him at UCSB.
“Even though I felt like I was going to die, I wasn’t actually going to die; I could push a little further,” she said of the rigorous training. “Playing sports and a higher level of sports and knowing how hard you have to push yourself, helped me be able to do that and worked for fire fighting as well.”
She noted that working smarter and harder has helped her handle the challenges of the job.
“Physically, I’m not capable of doing what all the guys can do, but we do find a way,” said the mother of 14-year-old twin girls.
Brown shared a story about a colleague getting promoted to battalion chief. He weighed around 350 pounds.
“His mom comes up to me and says, ‘Honey, are you going to be able to pull my son out of a burning building?’ And my response was: ‘Ma’am, I don’t think anybody can pull him out of a burning building by themselves.’ That’s why we’re a team and work together and figure it out. You just have to find a way.
“That’s a great mantra for women. “We can do it, we just have to find different ways some times.”
Farley, a survivor of Stage 3 breast cancer and a mother of two girls, said a go-for-it attitude has helped her become successful in her career. She explained that she was a walk-on sprinter for the track & field team at UCSB, but the team had plenty of sprinters.
She said coach Sam Adams looked at her and her sister and felt they’d be good weight throwers for the team.
“We actually got converted into doing shot put and discus,” she said. “And we scored points for the team.”
The initiative to try new things propelled Farley in her career.
“When I got the opportunity to become a law enforcement officer, I was, ‘I’ve never done that before …. Just try it. Why not?’
“My whole career ended up being little opportunities that at first you question yourself because you’ve never done it and you go for it. And every time you go for it, you take on something and learn the position and you become better and better.”