by Allen Brewer (he/his) | photos courtesy of Gina Sweat
Among the brave members of the Memphis Fire Department, Fire Chief Gina Sweat stands out not only as the first female and lesbian individual to hold this position but also for her love of the city. According to her, Memphis has a soul of its own that draws influence from the various communities and individuals that call it home.
A spirit of toughness
Sweat’s family says it was destiny that their daughter moved to Memphis. She was born in the city but moved to Middleton, Tennessee soon after. While she grew up in a
small town, she considers Memphis a part of her upbringing.
“There is a spirit of toughness about Memphis that speaks to me.” Sweat said. “I was born and have gravitated back to Memphis. (It) just keeps drawing me back home.”
She considers her occupation, however, purely fate. She had no interest in fire fighting until a family friend convinced her to try out for the force. Two years after that, on May 26, 1992, Sweat was hired and soon became a firefighter at Fire Station 1. In 2016, she made history becoming the first female Director of Fire Services in Memphis.
“I did not set out to be a role model, it just landed at my doorstep,” Sweat said.
As the first female and lesbian to hold this position, Sweat said that is now her responsibility to be a role model for future generations of women and LGBTQ firefighters. She said the job can be difficult; however, she sees each day as an opportunity to save lives and keep Memphis functioning safely.
The chief’s day starts early with a gym workout before she arrives at work around 7 a.m. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, most of her daily activities have been moved online. With around 1,723 subordinates under her command, her days are no less busy.
“My job is to keep that higher-level picture and to make sure everyone is on the same picture and headed in the same direction,” Sweat said.
On any particular day, she may leave the office in the afternoon; however, she remains available via email for most of the night. Occasionally, the Chief also likes to tag along on emergency calls after hours. As a firefighter who worked her way up the ranks of the department, the Chief likes to see her comrades in action and give them support.
“I don’t want to get rust,” Sweat said. “I want to go and respond. I think it is important for people to see me out there.”
We do not turn down invitations
While Sweat was able to ascend ranks, her early career was not without comments over her gender or sexual orientation. The Chief said that, in her estimation, female fighters still only make up around 3 percent of the Memphis Fire Department. She could not speak on the number of LGBTQ members in any statistics.
“As a gay woman, It was probably easier for others to understand (my occupational choice).” Sweat said. “I do not know of any openly gay men in our department.”
Chief Sweat admits that more work is needed to recruit firefighters of different backgrounds. The department is also open to spreading awareness for LGBTQ issues. This includes Sweat participation in the 2019 Memphis Gay Pride Parade, which was one of the last parades Sweat participated in since COVID-19.
“We (the fire department) do not turn down invitations to get out and interact with the community, and this is not just for people who look like us or act like us,” Sweat said.
What she loves about Memphis
While many activities in Memphis are still not functioning at a pre-COVID level, Chief Sweat says she still enjoys going to restaurants in her neighborhood in Cooper- Young. She also enjoys visiting the Memphis Zoo with friends and family.
Later this spring, Sweat hopes conditions will improve so she and her partner Gwen Scott can attend some of the festivals Memphis is known for.
“That is one of the things that I love about Memphis,” Sweat said about Memphis festivals.
While some businesses are still finding their footing in these difficult times, progress is still moving forward. Chief Sweats hopes that through her example inclusion and acceptance will continue to spread across Memphis.