After 10-year lapse, St. Paul adds second Black female in the department’s history
The St. Paul Fire Department now has three new Black firefighters on its roster – including its first new female firefighter in over 10 years. Brittany Baker, Brandyn Springsted and Dujuan Williams were sworn in May 11 at the Paul and Sheila Wellstone Center as part of the 19-member graduating class of the city’s Firefighter Academy.
Gerone Hamilton, a 20-year veteran and chief of community relations, and several other Black firefighters from St. Paul and Minneapolis attended last week’s public ceremony to support their new comrades.
“We are making strides to change the diversity and the culture in the department,” Hamilton said, noting that there are currently 33 Black male firefighters. “We have been really dedicated to get more firefighters of color, and women.”
In 2013, former St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman established a Fire Department Diversity Task Force of City officials, firefighters and community folks to look at the City’s recruiting strategies, minimum qualifications, application, and training and hiring processes. Currently, 10 percent of the St. Paul firefighters are Black, and 18 females make up the 428-member group.
Becoming a firefighter isn’t easy – one must first pass a physical performance test, then a written test, and be state EMT (emergency medical technician) certified or working toward certification. Then the individual gets put on a waiting list to be called. If finally accepted, participants go through 16 weeks of intense training.
“I’ve been striving for this for 17 years,” said Springsted. “I was a volunteer firefighter before, but I always wanted to be a professional firefighter. I tried out at a lot of places and St. Paul was willing to give me a shot, and I am very grateful for that.”
It was almost a decade-long process for Baker, who became St. Paul’s first Black female firefighter since Toni Terry’s retirement in 2007 and the second in the history of the department. Terry became the city’s first Black female firefighter in 1995.
“I initially applied in 2010,” Baker said. “I didn’t have my certifications. I decided to go get my EMT [training] in 2012, and I continued on to medical school.” She made the qualification list in 2014. “It’s been about eight years.”
“We are going to make sure that we are here for her,” said Minneapolis Battalion Chief Melanie Rucker, a 19-year veteran. She was promoted earlier this month to her present position after four years as deputy personnel chief. “I am across the river in Minneapolis, and I am just proud for her and to be here for her.”
According to its 2016 annual report, the Minneapolis Fire Department has 401 firefighters, 54 of them Black males. Seven of the 43 females are Black.
“We [have] got to make sure that we continue to be in the fire department and [are] making sure that our community and our young people know that this is a career for us,” said Rucker on hiring more Blacks.
“The hardest part is learning,” Williams said, because he didn’t have the prior firefighting experience that several of his fellow class members did. “Overall the academy was really tough, but it made me who I am.”
Even harder, perhaps, is the mental grind, Springsted noted. “They [the instructors] know how to bring it down to a level,” he explained. “It was mentally and physically demanding – the day-to-day. You have to reevaluate how you approach things.”
Rucker says it is even harder for prospective Black women firefighters: “We have to push hard and to work extra hard, especially being a woman and an African American woman. It’s like a double-edged sword. Not only [do] you have to fight because we are female, but as well as being a Black female.
“You get a lot of bigotry, a lot of kickback. To have that tough skin and courage is big. She [Baker] had to go through her battles to be the second African American female firefighter in the St. Paul Fire Department. We all have, but she got extra over here,” Rucker stated.
“It’s definitely rough,” Baker said. “If it was easy, everybody would be doing it. When times got really hard for me, I just reminisced on things one of my mentors had to go through.” She was referring to Debbie Montgomery, the first Black female police officer in St. Paul, who attended the ceremony.
“Whatever [Montgomery] had to go through was obviously way worse than whatever I would go through,” Baker continued. She added that her mother also was inspirational, and that her faith kept her strong as well throughout the four-month training. “If God didn’t want me here, I wouldn’t be here,” she said. “He has me – I don’t have to worry about anything else.”
Applications for St. Paul firefighters have closed for 2018, Hamilton reported. The next academy class is expected to start in January 2019.
The one-hour public ceremony and cake and coffee reception afterwards was not only for the graduates but a celebration for their families and supporters as well.
“We stuck together as a group. You got to have good friends and family that support you. It’s tough to do it by yourself,” Springsted said. “We get to be role models now to show everybody – people of color – that you can do it.”
Williams surmised, “I have no regrets at all. I want to be able to do for my kids, and be an example for my son.”
“It means something to my kids and my mom. It is definitely worth it,” Baker said. “I plan to continue to work hard and get better. I want to continue to get stronger, and I want to help other people get to this point, people that may not have the same support that I have. To be able to give back, reach back and grab other people.”
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.