My advice to women in the fire service…
By Fire Chief Toni Washington, City of Decataur, GA
If I could give advice to other women in the fire service, I would tell them, “You can achieve anything.” While there are obstacles for women and minorities, there is also opportunity. You control your professional destiny by staying focused on your short and long term goals, being dedicated, and being committed to the job.
I am one of two female African-American fire chiefs in the country, so I understand what it means to be different, and I’ve experienced many challenges. For one thing, I think women are always compared to their male peers, but are expected to do more. Women are simply held to a different standard. Another problem we face is being questioned when we express an opinion. People will say, “Oh, she’s just saying that because she’s a woman,” rather than accepting an objection as a valid concern.
One barrier that concerns me is a physical agility test that many departments require. It isn’t necessary because we train everyone when they’re hired. Many women aren’t able to properly prepare for it because they’re working another job, or two, and caring for a family, and it requires about three months of preparation in the evening. People talk a lot about diversity, but if we are consistently putting up these barriers, then we are discouraging women from joining the service. And even for those who do pass the test, or have the determination to join, they often don’t have support even though they are part of a department.
I have been very fortunate at the City of Decatur, and enjoy a lot of support from the organization and the community. There are departments out there that are supportive of women, so I encourage anyone who wants to be a firefighter to keep looking for a place where you can grow.
I would also advise learning as many skills as possible, and finding a mentor, male or female, who can provide you with guidance, and joining iWomen, the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services. It’s a great organization that provides tremendous resources and development opportunities.
Toni Washington is Fire Chief for the City of Decatur, GA, and has 24 years in the fire service. She serves on the I-Women Board of Directors. For more information about iWomen, visit iWomen.
Toni Washington joined the City of Decatur in January 2009 as the first African American and first female to serve as the Fire Chief/Emergency Manager. Her work involves planning and managing the operations of the fire department in fire prevention, fire suppression, emergency management, and emergency medical services.
She began her public safety career at State Fire Marshal’s Office; and then to a Metro Atlanta fire department where she work her way to the position of Deputy Fire Chief.Before beginning her tenure in the public safety field, Toni attended Savannah State University where she received her Bachelor of Business Administration in Marketing and Management.
After mapping her career path, she expanded her education and received a Master of Science in Managerial Leadership from National Louis University. Her corporate background includes employment with the Turner Home Entertainment Marketing and Public Relations Team, serving on the staff of actress Jane Fonda, and working with the Cobb Microenterprise Council where she assisted low to moderate-income individuals in achieving self-sufficiency. Toni’s other professional achievements consist of holding a wide variety of fire operations and public education certifications and trainings.
Some of her professional affiliations include the Metro Atlanta Association of Fire Chiefs, International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters, Georgia Firefighters Burn Foundation Board Chair, iWomen, Decatur Career Academy Advisory Council, International Fire Chiefs Association, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., and various mentoring programs.
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