DECATUR, Ga. (AP) — The Decatur Fire Department touts itself as a bastion of progressiveness, pushing boundaries in an arena of public safety that tends to be entrenched in tradition.
It was the first and remains the only fire department in the United States with an all-female command team, according to city officials. Chief Toni Washington leads the ranks and is supported by Deputy Chief Vera Morrison, her second in command, and Assistant Chief Ninetta Violante.
The three women head up an agency with 55 firefighters, providing steady leadership in one of the most male-dominated lines of work.
“I think that women as a whole bring something unique, something different to organizations that makes us even better as a group,” Washington said.
March was Women’s History Month, a celebration of groundbreaking achievements women have made and to recognize ladies in positions of leadership.
“It gives us an opportunity to highlight some of the shoulders of the women that we’ve had to stand on to be able to get to where we are,” Morrison said. “We still have to break those glass ceilings and shatter those myths.”
Washington, Morrison and Violante are an embodiment of what Women’s History Month represents. Less than 5% of career firefighters across the country are women, according to the National Fire Protection Association. That’s far less than even law enforcement, in which women make up about 13% of the full-time police officers in the U.S., according to federal Bureau of Justice statistics.
Decatur’s fire chiefs are shattering the notion of what epitomizes a good firefighter. About 18% of the city’s fire crews are female, according to department officials.
“I think it pushes us to constantly evolve and be progressive and continue to strive,” Violante said. “While the fire service is deeply based in tradition, I think as females, we are very good at being self-critical. And we use that in a way to analyze how we can always improve.”
The three women were featured on the “Kelly Clarkson Show” in a 2019 episode that focused on their status as the lone female leadership team in the nation.
“That’s not why we got into this. We got into it to do a job that we are very passionate about, and then we wanted to impact change,” Washington said of the distinction.
The trio has 70 years of experience between them. Washington, the most seasoned, will celebrate her 29th year in fire services in September. She hired Morrison and Violante, both of whom have around 20 years of service.
The women have broken barriers in their careers.
When Washington was appointed to lead the department in 2009, she became the city’s first Black and female fire chief. She was the fourth African American woman to lead a fire agency in the country.
In 2015, Morrison became one of the first two Black battalion chiefs in the history of the department, which was established in 1937.
Washington said many fire departments remain steeped in traditions from nearly 100 years ago. She’s been known to incorporate changes in the Decatur fire houses that buck the norm.
One of the traditions Washington has worked to eradicate is the nepotism she said was prevalent in her early years and made it hard for women to break into the field. Often, she said, fire chiefs hired their sons, nephews or other young men who they’d groomed for the jobs.
Female hopefuls were left to fend for themselves during the hiring process, and if they did make it onto the back of a fire truck, there were hurdles in place to ensure they never climbed the ladder up the ranks, according to Washington.
“Unfortunately for a long time, the fire service was a white man’s world,” she said. “We had what we call a ‘good ole boy’ system in place. And if you weren’t part of that ‘good ole boy system,’ you did not get promoted.”
About 20 years ago, many departments began implementing policies to level the playing field during the hiring and promotions processes. Washington has made her own changes, allowing employees more leave time to get training and even establishing programs to pay for their education.
She scrapped the candidate physical abilities test, or CPAT, a nationally accepted time-based agility test most departments use to evaluate new hires. Washington called CPAT a “horrible tradition” because it measures men and women on the same level physically before they ever learn the job. She believes male hopefuls, who tend to score higher on the test, have an unfair advantage because they are naturally stronger.
Now the department relies on more knowledge-based aptitude evaluations to determine fitness for duty.
“It’s getting better,” Washington said. “It’s not anywhere where it needs to be. But you see more of us now than you’ve ever seen before in the history of the fire service.”