by Frank Murtaugh
Gina Sweat and one of her heroes, Larry Bird, share two distinct foundational qualities: They each grew up in a small town (Sweat in Middleton, Tennessee; Bird in French Lick, Indiana) and they each played basketball. Sweat’s career on the hardwood ended after her college days at Freed-Hardeman, but you’d have a compelling debate in measuring which career was less likely. Bird, you probably know, became a Hall of Fame forward for the Boston Celtics. Sweat became — just last January — the first female Director of Fire Services in the history of the Memphis Fire Department.
“Over the last few months, I’ve been asked how I got here a lot,” says Sweat. “Looking back, it almost seems purposeful. But I wasn’t focused [on reaching this office].”
Sweat spent her childhood days in and around her parents’ grocery and bait shop. Her mother was only 18 when Gina was born, and she gained a sister after her 10th birthday. So in some respects, Sweat had a peer leader in her own mom and an important leadership role to play for her only sibling. “Growing up,” says Sweat, “my mom was one of my best friends, and she is to this day.”
When not playing basketball, Sweat practiced taekwondo, earning a black belt as a senior at Middleton High (where she was co-valedictorian in 1984). “My mom and dad were self-employed,” she explains, “so I helped them. My dad was the local ice distributor, so I helped with packaging ice. My granddad was a farmer, so I’d get to ride a tractor with him. I grew up learning the value of work. I was always looking for ways to make money so I could buy the things kids want to buy.”
Upon earning her bachelor’s degree (in business administration) in 1988, Sweat moved to Memphis and spent a short time with a property-management company. But when she heard the Memphis Fire Department was, for the first time, recruiting female firefighters, she did some research, considered her athletic upbringing, and sprinted through the newly opened door. When hired in 1992, Sweat and a classmate were the fourth and fifth women to join the department.
Training to be a professional firefighter — and the physical tests one must pass — does not allow for gender distinction. “Fire doesn’t discriminate against race or gender,” emphasizes Sweat. She had to sprint up a five-story building — wearing a weighted vest — and keep pace with male trainees. She had to wield a sledgehammer and bust through a wall or roof with the same force her male classmates displayed, for she’d be called upon to perform the same tasks, only with lives at stake.
“I considered it a challenge to get back in shape,” says Sweat. “It was intimidating. When you went out, there were people lined up taking the test, but there was no one else like me. Raising a ladder, walking across a balance beam, carrying a dummy. It’s necessary to have minimum standards, and I was very cognizant to make sure I could meet those. The real test comes a few months down the road when you’re in a burning building and have to do things contrary to nature. I never wanted to be in a situation to get myself hurt, but even more, to get one of my fellow firefighters hurt, or not be able to help them.”
In May 2015, the New York Post reported that 5.7 percent of American firefighters today are women. Sweat estimates that Memphis currently has 50 female firefighters among a force totaling 1,600 (3 percent). Despite the distinct minority she’s represented for more than 20 years now, Sweat made a steady climb up the promotional ladder. [Sweat identifies four other cities with female fire chiefs: San Francisco, Phoenix, Austin, and Portland, Oregon.]
“A lot of the stuff I’d done in my childhood — the basketball and martial arts, being a teammate — prepared me for this [career],” says Sweat, who spent much of her work life essentially living in fire stations as the only woman on a team of nine or 10. “It’s a family concept. We work nine or ten 24-hour shifts a month; that’s a third of your life. You eat together, handle chores, training. And when a call comes in, you drop what you’re doing and go. You never know what the night may bring.”
Sweat says she never experienced what she’d call harassment as a firefighter. (“There were some uncomfortable moments,” she notes with a smile. “Men will be men.”) She took life at the station seriously and she treated the job like the career it’s become, earning a bachelor’s in Fire Administration in 2000, and a master’s in Strategic Leadership in 2013, both from the University of Memphis.
When asked about the qualities she values most in a leader, Sweat emphasizes loyalty and trustworthiness. It can be a race to the top among firefighters when it comes to administrative positions, and this can compromise relationships, even among station teammates. On top of that, the stresses of a firefighting career can strain otherwise strong family bonds. Sweat practices a leadership style that emphasizes compassion and engagement with individuals under her guidance.
“As a battalion chief, I’d get to know [firefighters’] families,” says Sweat. “I maintain those relationships to this day. You have to care about people to lead them, and they have to know you care about them. Are you a manager or a leader? You manage a fireground, tactically. You’re at war with the fire. It’s not time for please or thank you.”
Sweat has endured the deaths of fellow firefighters, once early in her career and then later at a scene where she was in charge as battalion chief. “When you’re young — and invincible — they tell you that you can get hurt,” says Sweat, “but you don’t really believe it. This is dangerous, though, and you really have to watch each other’s back. You can’t take things for granted. It’s a hard life lesson. You’re responsible for people inside a burning building. It strikes home the responsibility.” [Fifty-four fallen firefighters are memorialized on a wall at the Fire Museum of Memphis.]
Trips to the Gulf Coast or Caribbean and walking her three dogs have helped Sweat manage the stress of firefighting, though she emphasizes exercise is — now and forever — the best weapon against tension and work pressure. “The beach brings me back to earth,” she says.
Now in a position to identify and help steer future leaders (male or female), Sweat aims to make the same connections she has since first donning a fire suit 24 years ago. “I like to give people the opportunity to show they’re trustworthy,” she says. “We spend our lives trusting each other with our life. When people start jockeying for position, it can get ugly. People often say you learn who your friends are when you’re going through tough times, but you really learn about friends when you’re successful. I’ve lost a few people I thought were friends along the way, but I’ve made so many great relationships.
“There were so many people who mentored me. I try and do that for anybody I see who has the desire to do things right and move this department forward. And you don’t start doing that when you become director. These are things I’ve done for 20 years. Some of the people who report to me now were my boss at one time.”
Encased high on a shelf in Sweat’s downtown office is a basketball signed by the late Pat Summitt, the Hall of Fame women’s basketball coach at the University of Tennessee. Sweat has long considered Summitt the gold standard for leadership with her emphasis on accountability and teamwork beyond what anyone might see on the basketball court. The onetime sweet-shooting forward acknowledges she wasn’t quite good enough to play for the Lady Vols, but Sweat likes to think her favorite coach would be pleased with her career choice.
“My philosophy is, you go to work,” she says. “Whatever needs to be done today, that’s what I’m going to do. I’d learn my boss’s job. If I could make him look good, he’d get promoted and that might open a spot. It may seem purposeful now, but it was really just learning new challenges and learning more about the department as a whole. Every time an opportunity came to test for a promotion, I was ready.”
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