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City's first female firefighter salutes city's first female fire chief

Fire Chief Amy Biggs recently completed her first year in the job

Wednesday, August 28, 2013 - 7:54 am

They both sought seeking good careers. They both persevered because of support from others around them.

Tuesday, the city's first female firefighter, Genois Wilson Brabson, presented a gift and words of encouragement to Fort Wayne Fire Chief Amy Biggs, the city's first female fire chief, who recently completed her first year in that position.

The meeting took place in a conference room in the fire department's offices on the ninth floor of the Rousseau Centre, 1 E. Main St.

Biggs was just joining the department when Brabson was preparing to retire in 1995.

Brabson's story is told in “Genois Wilson, Firefighter: She Dared to be First,” a children's book by local author Carol Butler, which was published in February.

Brabson had gone to Indiana University to become a classroom teacher. After student teaching, however, she chose not to pursue that career. Then a single mother with a young son, she wanted to stay in Fort Wayne, she said. She applied for a job as a city emergency-response dispatcher and started work in March 1975.

In the late 1970s, an assistant fire chief with Fort Wayne Fire Department asked her to consider joining the department as a firefighter, a story in The News-Sentinel archives says. She officially became a firefighter in 1979.

Some male firefighters were against having women on the department, Brabson said.

“The main thing that helped me was I thought there are people who had come to me who thought I would be successful,” she said. She thought, “I've got to do this, no matter how hard it is.”

Brabson went on to work most of her career with the department's Fire Prevention Bureau, where she both taught and served on the fire department. She won praise for her work with children and for developing fire-safety programs, including the Survive Alive house at Safety Village.

She retired in early 1995 as a district chief.

“I was totally thrilled,” she said, when she learned a year ago that Mayor Tom Henry had promoted Biggs from assistant chief to fire chief.

The department reports currently having 15 women firefighters out of a force of 340 firefighters. Nationally, there are about 6,200 full-time women firefighters and officers, the International Association of Women in Fire & Emergency Services reports.

Biggs, a Fort Wayne native, said her inspiration to become a firefighter came from watching the “choreographed chaos” as firefighters put out a blaze at a neighbor's house.

At the time, she was in her mid-20s and working in a customer-service job she didn't find satisfying.

“I went down to my local fire station down the street and started asking questions,” she said.

She joined the department in 1995 and kept her focus on short-term goals as she tried to learn more and become a better firefighter.

She started in the fire prevention area, and later served as a frontline firefighter. She was promoted to captain and became an assistant chief in 2008. The mayor announced in June 2012 he had selected Biggs to lead the department following the retirement of Chief Pete Kelly.

Biggs said being a woman didn't create many challenges for her on the department.

“I really felt a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood on the department,” she said. “The only limitations were my own.”

During their meeting, Biggs credited Brabson with helping to clear the way for women who joined the department after her.

“I couldn't have been here without you, the matriarch of our department,” Biggs said. “You made so many opportunities available.”