Inspiring Women to Dream, Learn & to Know They Can Become More! Meet Toni Washington, Fire Chief at Decatur Fire Department
Q: I presume there’s not many female Fire Chief’s in the United States. When the day arrived and you were to be promoted, can you share with us some of your thoughts?
TW: There aren’t many female fire Chiefs in the United States. Remembering the day, I was promoted… I was in a meeting and I received the call offering me the job of Fire Chief with the City of Decatur. I felt so many emotions that day. I know I had big shoes to fill and that it was imperative that my tenure would be successful. At that time, I was the fourth appointment African American Fire Chief in the country. There are only about 3-4% career female firefighters. Therefore, the number for female fire chiefs is much lower.
Q: According to the U.S. Department of Labor only about 4 percent of Firefighters are women, even as that figure has risen to about 14 percent in Police work and the Military. I presume you must feel some disappointment when you see these numbers …. Do you see changes that will open doors for young women to have a career as a Firefighter?
TW: Right now, there is a steady decline in women entering into the fire service. I am not comfortable with the statistics that I have seen lately. Unfortunately, the fire service is very traditional, and we do not like change. We must find a way to attract, recruit and retain females in our profession. It is still mind-boggling when I hear that there are fire departments that still do not employ women. I think that it is essential to have a diverse workforce. We all bring a unique element to the profession and the diversity will only make us better.
Q: As Fire Chief of Decatur, what kind of programs have you implemented to create public awareness when it comes to fire safety?
TW: I have a strong passion for public education programs. We must continue to focus on fire prevention, concentrating of being proactive instead of reactive. It is very important that we understand that there is no such thing as a good fire. Every time there is a fire in the community, someone has lost their personal property and sometimes a life. We have to ensure that our buildings are constructed at a level in which they meet the proper building codes; we must continue to educate the community, focusing on those that are at higher risk; and build relationship with citizens so that they know us before the call is answered. Making sure our community is safe, we have developed and implemented the following community risk reduction programs. The list does not include all programs:
- Child Seat Installations
- Home Inspections
- Blood Pressure Checks
- Fire Extinguisher training
- Fan Giveaway
- CPR Training
- CPR Training for Students
- Car Fit for Seniors
- Medicine Cabinet Clean-Out
- Safe Places
- Winter Storm Senior Welfare Checks
- Stop the Bleed
- Citizens Assisting Public Safety (CAPS)
- Smart 911
- Free Smoke Alarm
- Free CO2 Alarms
Q: I see received your Bachelor’s in Business Administration in Marketing & Management … what did you think your career path would be at that time?
TW: Initially I wanted to be in sales, but after an internship with a tobacco company I realized that I wasn’t at all interested in outside sales. I did like the aspect of dealing with people from all different backgrounds and cultures.
Q: Can you share with us what’s the best part of your job as Fire Chief?
TW: One of the most rewarding things to me is having positive relationships. Therefore, the best part of my job is interacting with people and being able to affect the lives of the diverse community I serve. Whenever/however, I can affect the lives of people personally or professionally equals success for me.
It brings so much joy to my heart when I hear that I have made a difference whether its mentoring our future leaders, talking to young children, program development, protecting the community or inspiring/encouraging someone to reach their goal(s).
Q: What was your first job? And how did it shape or impact you?
TW: My first job was at McDonald’s. It was in my younger days while in high school. It provided me with a foundation that taught me work ethic, responsibility, being on time, and loyalty.
Q: Can you tell our audience one of your most memorable moments your career?
TW: One of the most memorable moments of my career was driving the rear of a ladder truck. A male child in the community pointed and yelled, “That’s a lady.” The female child said, “Yes that is. She is awesome; I want to be just like her when I grow up.”
Q: What’s one lesson you’ve learned in your career that you can share with us?
TW: I learned so many lessons during my career in the fire service. One that I would share is be true to yourself. Remember the job does not make you, you make the make job. Never let your position control you, you always maintain control of your actions. At the end of the day, I am “Toni” and I serve as the Fire Chief.
Q: What is one word of advice you can offer to young women entering the work force who want to reach your level of success?
TW: Have a plan, work hard and let’s shatter the glass ceiling.
Q: What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?
TW: The traits that I attribute to my success is my compassion and commitment for the job and the people. Yes, I am the Fire Chief but it’s not about me. I have high expectations for myself. I want my legacy to be what I did for the community, how I mentored and inspired people all over the world not just that I was one of few female fire chiefs.
I think my style is a little different because traditionally the Fire Chief has been an autocratic leader. Although my style takes a little longer, it has been very effective and personally rewarding. My leadership is more democratic, and people oriented. I like committees, I like employees to participate in the decision-making process. I feel that it is important to get the opinion of the people who are out in the field doing the job. It would be very easy for me to decide what uniforms and equipment to buy, but what is I support a team concept. I think it not only motivates employees, but it also develops skills and promote succession planning. Relationships, supporting and developing people are all high contenders in my plan. I believe that if employees are involved, they are happier which means we are more productive. I want them to come to work and feel that they are a part of an efficient and creative team that works hard at serving and making a difference in the community.
Q: Which woman inspires you and why?
TW: My mother, Beverly Rawls. From day one, she has been my rock. She has worked hard to ensure that all of her children are balance, exposed and honest. My moral and values are a direct reflection of what she stood for and what she expected from me. It is because of my Mom; I am who I am today.
Q: What are some of the challenges you feel women face today?
TW: A couple of the challenges that I have faced as a female Fire Chief is external performance disparity and not being accepted. As a female Fire Chief, my actions are always evaluated and sometimes scrutinized from my professional constituents. There have been many occasions where I am overlooked or ignored because of my gender. Although it has been sometimes difficult to comprehend, I have been able to overcome these obstacles. I focus on the tasks at hand understanding my goals and objectives. I don’t allow the unofficial evaluators influence my decision-making process. I am comfortable with who I am, I love myself and I understand my mission.
Q: What's your advice for women in male-dominated fields?
TW: If I could give advice to other women in male dominated fields, 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.
Five Things About Toni Washington
1. If you could talk to one famous person past or present, who would it be and why?
Michelle Obama – she is always poised, vibrant and methodical
2. If you were a superhero, what would your special powers be?
Black Panther - To impose solidarity, peace and happiness to everyone
3. What’s the best piece of advice anyone’s given you?
Never let one thing or one person define where you are or where you are going.
4. What app can’t you live without?
GroupMe – I stay connected to my family, friends and sorority sisters.
5. Who’s been your biggest influence in your life?
The biggest influence in my life has been my family. Without all 30+ of them (husband, children, grandsons, parents, grandparents, siblings, nieces, nephews, etc.), I don’t think I would have made it. Their support has been the thing that has lifted me up and pushed me forward.