The Decatur Fire Department casts itself as a bastion of progressiveness, pushing the envelope in an arena of public safety that tends to be steeped 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 Deputy Chief Ninetta Violante.
The three women run an agency of 55 firefighters, providing consistent leadership in one of the most male-dominated industries.
“I think 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 the groundbreaking achievements of women and the recognition of women in leadership positions.
“It gives us the opportunity to highlight some of the women’s shoulders that we’ve had to stand on to get to where we are,” Morrison said. “We still have to smash those glass ceilings and shatter those myths.”
Washington, Morrison and Violante embody what Women’s History Month stands for. According to the National Fire Protection Association, less than 5% of career firefighters across the country are women. That’s far less than even law enforcement, where women make up about 13% of full-time police officers in the United States, according to statistics from the Federal Bureau of Justice.
Decatur Fire Chiefs shatter the notion of what makes a good firefighter. About 18% of the city’s fire crews are women, according to department officials.
“I think that pushes us to constantly evolve and be progressive and keep fighting,” Violante said. “Although the fire service is steeped in tradition, I think that as women we are very good at self-criticism. And we use that to analyze how we can always improve.
The three women were featured on the “Kelly Clarkson Show” in a 2019 episode that highlighted their status as the only female management team in the country.
“That’s not why we got into this. We got into it to do work that we’re very passionate about, and then we wanted to impact change,” Washington said of the accolade.
The trio have 70 years of experience between them. Washington, the most seasoned, will celebrate 29 years in the fire service in September. She hired Morrison and Violante, who both have about 20 years of service.
Women have broken barriers in their careers.
When Washington was named head of the department in 2009, she became the city’s first black, 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 commanders in the department’s history, established in 1937.
One of the traditions Washington has worked to eradicate is the nepotism that she says was prevalent in her early years and made it difficult for women to break into the field. Often, she said, fire chiefs hired their sons, nephews or other young men they had groomed for the jobs.
The female hopefuls were left to fend for themselves during the hiring process, and if they managed to get into the back of a fire truck, obstacles were in place to ensure they never climbed the echelons, according to Washington.
“Unfortunately, for a long time firefighters were a white man’s world,” she said. “We had what we call a ‘good old boy’ system in place. And if you weren’t part of this “good old boy system”, you weren’t promoted.
About 20 years ago, many departments began implementing policies to level the playing field in the hiring and promotion process. Washington has made its own changes, giving employees more time off for training and even establishing programs to pay for their education.
She dropped the Candidate Physical Abilities Test, or CPAT, a time-based, nationally accepted agility test that most departments use to assess new hires. Washington called the CPAT a “horrible tradition” because it physically measures men and women on the same level before they learn the job. She thinks male prospects, 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 assessments to determine fitness for duty.
“It’s getting better,” Washington said. “It’s not anywhere he needs to be. But you see us now more than you have ever seen before in firefighter history.