Chief Toni Washington is breaking down barriers for black women. A native of Savannah, Georgia, Washington became Decatur’s fire chief in 2009 making her the first African American and female fire chief for the city as well as the fourth African American female fire chief in the nation. After graduating from college, she started working in the State Fire Marshal’s Office. As an employee there, she was introduced to various fire chiefs including one who made it known that he was looking to hire women for his department. However, Washington didn’t consider becoming a firefighter. Once she received her Bachelor of Business Administration in Marketing from Savannah State University, Washington decided to pursue her career as a firefighter. As she continued to use the challenges and obstacles on her journey as fuel to climb the fire ladder physically and literally, Washington is not only a representation of Black Girl Magic, but also a superhero to kids all over.
Q: You signed up for the fire services in the 1990s, what drew you into becoming a firewoman?
Chief Washington: When I got out of college, I was very unsure about what I wanted to do. In 1990, I got a job with the State Fire Marshal’s Office and the State Fire Marshal’s Office dealt with a lot of the fire departments. So that’s how I was introduced to the fire departments. Although I was in the fire service, I wasn’t yet in the fire department. I was an at-will employee so I needed a job. Because things didn’t go right with the election. (Laughs) I just kind of took one of the Fire Chiefs up on his offer, they were out heavily recruiting women because they still didn’t have enough women in the fire service. One of the Fire Chiefs that I’ve met during one of my meetings, I remember that he said, “You should consider the fire service.” A lot of my peers come into the fire service because it’s something that they always aspired to be. From the very beginning, I always aspired to be the fire chief.
Q: Did you ever feel like you had to prove something to others in your field being that you are not only black but a woman?
Chief Washington: Absolutely! I remember way back in recruit school being challenged by some of the people that I work with. When I got out of recruit school, I had to show that I could do what they did. Even as fire chiefs people say, “Oh, well, she must have known somebody or, oh, how many fires did you fight?” Well, first of all, me fighting fires have nothing to do with my position now. So yes! Even now, because there are 1000s of Fire Chiefs and there are very few women. There probably maybe about 50 women in the whole country, out of 1000s of fire chiefs. Oftentimes I go to meetings and things and I’m there alone. People look at me and say, “Oh, you’re the fire chief? I thought you were someone’s assistant.”
Q: Did you have a thought in your head that you would’ve been promoted to such a high rank in this field?
Chief Washington: Of course, from the very beginning, that’s what I always aspired to do. I came from one of those strong mother backgrounds. My mother, my father, my grandfather, and my grandmother always pushed us. Although, when I first started, there were no black women Fire Chiefs at all and very few female chiefs. I knew that I wanted to go there and I was going to do whatever it took to get there. Because I was going to every glass ceiling that I came up against my object was to crack it, to shatter it. Because not only did I need to go through it, but I needed people to come behind me to also be able to come through. I put in my mind, I’m getting there. I’m not sure how long it’s gonna take me but I will obtain the ranks of fire chief. When I got there. I will say that I was surprised. I was like, “Yeah, I did that.”
Q: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced within your career?
Chief Washington: One of the challenges that I still face today is there are a lot of biases against black women leaders. A lot of things that I have to deal with are my tone, how I accept things that happen. I have to be very careful with that because as black women, we just react. That’s just who we are. We’re not angry black women. So I have to constantly make sure that I’m not perceived as that “angry black woman.” That’s from the beginning, all the way until now. I’m about 5’1. I’m not tall at all, but people tell me that I intimidate them.
Q: Tell us about the first fire camp you hosted in Georgia for young women?
Chief Washington: I think the fire service is a well-kept secret. I have been wanting to do a fire camp for women for a long time. In the city of Decatur, I didn’t have the resources to do that. So I partnered with Atlanta Fire Rescue and the Atlanta Fire Foundation had some grant money that they were willing to spend for the girls’ fire camp. They were gracious enough to allow me to come over, and participate with them. It was a very awesome experience. I just felt like if their path wasn’t to the fire service, at least they had that connection, that we made that connection, and maybe that if their past was in the fire service, I can inspire a mentor them, to be successful in whatever it is that they decide to do in life.
Q: If you were not a part of the fire services, what would you be doing?
Chief Washington: I have my undergraduate degree in marketing. I initially went into marketing. I want to be a real estate agent. They make a lot of money and I realized when I got the telesales degree as a real estate agent, there was a certification. So I picked marketing. I worked in outside sales for a little while, but I found out that that was not my thing. I came from a long line of public safety servants. It was my calling. I just kind of jumped in and went with it. Marketing and sales, if I did not take this route.
Q: When you reach the moment of retirement, what legacy do you wish to leave for young black women who want to follow in your footsteps?
Chief Washington: The legacy that I would like to leave when I retire, which hopefully will be in the next five to six years, for sure. The legacy that I would like to lead is you can do anything that you want to do. There may be some challenges, there may be some roadblocks, there may even be some obstacles, but you can do it because she did it.