In December, newly elected Mayor Jim Strickland appointed longtime Memphis Fire Department employee Gina Sweat as the new director, replacing former Director Alvin Benson.
Sweat, the department's first female director, has been a firefighter for 23 years, rising through the ranks since 1992. Strickland noted that Sweat was chosen for the job "on her merits and her dedication to service" in a press conference announcing her position. The Flyer was able to catch up with Sweat for her thoughts on the new job.
— Alexandra Pusateri
Flyer: How does it feel being the first female fire director?
Gina Sweat: To be honest, it's quite humbling. It wasn't my goal to set off to be the first female fire director. I was just one of those people who came to work. My parents taught me from a very young age the value of hard work, that you earn what you get by working hard and applying yourself. That's really been my whole approach to my career, because it was hard being a female and not being as physically strong as the men. So you have to find ways to work smarter. They could muscle through things, and I couldn't.
I never set out to be a role model for women. I just set out to be the person who came to work and did what I was supposed to do. By doing that, and always applying myself, I find myself in this position today. It just shows you can work your way to the top. I think anyone can do what I've done. I've just been fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time and making sure I was making the right decisions.
Are you hoping to tackle any specific issues as fire director?
We have a great fire department here in the city of Memphis. We've had some morale issues, and some of those things I can't do anything about. But I am going to listen to what's going on in the field to try and find things I can do. Even if they're small [things], just to let the firefighters know that I am paying attention and hearing them, just trying to find some little wins to let them know that I have their back.
I do want to find ways for us to become more engaged with the community, which is going to fall in line with the recruitment efforts we do. We're looking at ways to engage our youth and introduce them earlier to these career opportunities that are open for them, putting them on a path so they'll know how to become a firefighter.
Once we recruit the right people, we have to make sure they stay on the department. We are losing more firefighters than we have in the past, but I think if we can head that off before it gets out of hand, we'll be in a much better place.
Where will you be focusing your recruitment efforts?
We're going to focus our initial efforts in the city of Memphis and the metro area. I think it's important to recruit people who have some ownership in the community: people who have family and ties to the community, their churches, schools. I think that's going to help us with the retention part.
In the past, when they did go outside of the city, we got firefighters, but a lot of them didn't stay. They got the experience here and went back home. Some of them did stay and became Memphians, but I feel strongly that we have people here in the city [who could work for the fire department]. We need to invest in our youth a little better, and we can find quality people here in our hometown.