Toni Washington has never been one to back down from a challenge. One of nine children, she grew up in Savannah, Georgia, and learned from an early age how to hold her own. That tenacity served Washington well when she signed up for the fire service in the 1990s. “A lot of people did not think I could do it,” she recalls. “I wanted to show everybody that I could.”
Washington proved her critics wrong and then some. She finished second in her class and went on to earn a master’s degree in managerial leadership. Now, the 51-year-old serves as fire chief for Decatur. She’s the only active, female fire chief in the country, as well as Decatur’s first female and first African American fire chief—points of both pride and disappointment. “It’s bittersweet. I’m very happy of what I’ve accomplished, but I’m sad that I’m the only one in 2019,” she says.
Washington hopes to change that fact. This year, she helped to host the state’s first-ever fire camp for young women. Firefighting has traditionally been—and still is—a male-dominated field. Washington estimates that women make up only about 3 percent of the fire service. “I’ve been working hard, these last few years, introducing women into the fire service and letting them know it’s an option,” she says. Washington sees it as her duty to prepare the next generation of leaders. (She comes from a family of trailblazers. Her grandfather was one of the first African American police officers in Savannah; her mother was also a police officer.)
Outside of work, Washington enjoys traveling, reading, and spending time with her family. She is married and has three daughters and two grandsons. She offers them the same advice she gives to other young people, especially women: “Have a plan, work hard, and shatter the glass ceiling.”