PFD Battalion Chief Lisa Forrest, after her swearing in ceremony

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A hundred and forty-nine years after it was founded, the Philadelphia Fire Department has its first Black woman battalion chief. Formerly Captain Lisa Forrest, she took the oath of office and put on her new uniform for the first time Tuesday, joined by dozens of family members and friends.

“Although I’m the first, I am looking forward to more coming behind me,” Forrest said. “This is the start of some more to come. That’s what today is.”

Of the roughly 70 battalion chiefs in Philly, Forrest is only the third woman. The department is 12% women overall, per spokesperson Kathy Matheson.

“I’m almost speechless to be a part of such a historic day,” said Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel. Forrest earned the promotion, he continued, “not just with her leadership in the field, but also…in the community.”

Forrest has a decorated history with the department. The 39-year-old Mount Airy native graduated from the Fire Academy in 2003. Ten years later, she became the first Black woman to be promoted to captain, serving at West Philly’s Ladder 24. Now, she’s the highest-ranking Black woman on the department’s firefighting side (there are others who work for EMS).

Then-Capt. Lisa Forrest stands with other officers being promoted within the Philly Fire Dept. Credit: Emma Lee / WHYY

Her family is hardly surprised. As long as they can remember, her loved ones say she’s been hyper-motivated. The mother of two has a drive that’s almost unparalleled — and not just for her own success.

Tammi Crummy, Forrest’s older cousin, said the newly promoted fire chief was integral in convincing her to go to grad school.

“Having three sons, she was one of the people in my corner when I decided to go back to school for my master’s degree,” Crummy said. “She was one of the people in my corner, sending me inspirational texts like, ‘You can finish, cuz, you can do it.’ That’s her. That’s how she is.”

“I know people look at her, she’s tiny, she’s small in stature,” said Forrest’s cousin, Tamika Valentine. “But she’s strong. She’s breaking down barriers everywhere she goes.”

Why’d it take so long for the Fire Department to promote a Black woman through the ranks? It’s not just a local issue. Across the United States, 96% of career firefighters are men, and 82% are white. Fire departments are, on average, less diverse than the military and police forces. Both Black people and women have reported facing harsh stereotypes and explicit racism and sexism in fire departments nationwide.

There’s a group in Philadelphia working to combat that problem. Club Valiants is Philly’s association of Black firefighters, and members often knock on the doors of potential Black recruits to encourage them to join. Forrest herself was recruited by one of its members — and now she’s the first woman to be president of the group.

“A lot of times people can’t handle the pressure of people always watching you and seeing what you’re going to do next,” Forrest said. “But I come from a family of strong women, and my family values, I try to bring it into the Fire Department.”

Her cousin, Valentine, thinks this is just the beginning for Forrest.

“You’ll probably see us in a couple years when she’s getting promoted to something else,” she said. “Keys to the city, baby. Mayor, commissioner, something. We know this is not it. This is just the beginning.”

Forrest gets a round of hugs from friends and family after a promotion ceremony outside the Fire Administration Building on Spring Garden Street Credit: Emma Lee / WHYY

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...