Monday, January 22, 2018
Public safety

A conversation with Tampa's first female district fire chief

TAMPA — For 20 years, Susan Tamme has helped rescue people and put out fires across the city. Last week, Tamme, 54, of Oldsmar, was named a district chief at Tampa Fire Rescue — the first woman to reach that rank in the department's 119-year history.

Tamme recently took some time out from a firefighters' convention in Philadelphia to talk to the Times about her climb up the ladder.

Were you the only woman in the department when you started?

No, the first were hired in 1978, Mechy Wright and Hollis Boggs. They were actually the true pioneers of Tampa Fire Rescue. Currently, of the 650 firefighters, 40 are women. That's about the average nationally, though some districts are just now hiring their first women.

What were your goals when you started?

District chief, or the fire chief. It never dawned on me that I would be the first female district chief. I got hired in 1994, almost 10 years after the first woman was hired. So it has taken 30 years for the first woman to reach an executive position. What makes this monumental is that I've come through the ranks. On the civilian side we do have women in leadership positions. On the combat side we haven't had any.

Do you worry about safety on the job?

Firefighters don't face the dragon by themselves. They go in with a partner and as a team. Everyone contributes differently. One may be more physically fit. Another might be more mechanically inclined. The media portrays one firefighter carrying a baby out of the fire. But it took a team to break down the door, carry the hose …

Where have you found your niche?

Leadership. I'm an organizational nut. I have to get organized.

Is it ever helpful to be a woman?

Absolutely. Childbirth, for instance, I have delivered four babies. I have been in the back in transport units singing songs, holding someone's hand — not that men don't do that, too. But sometimes and almost any incident with children — the men definitely like having a woman around.

Is going on calls an adrenaline rush?

Oh, absolutely. We're Type-A personalities. In high school, I ran track and swam on a team. Every day is a different day. Every call is a different call. I'm on the urban search and rescue team and I've been stationed all over Tampa. One day I can be purchasing things at a business and the next day, helping someone from that business in their personal life. There's just a silent, "I recognize you and I'm here to help you."

Was physical ability an obstacle?

For the physical part, we all have to be able to carry a ladder, pull a hose line and pull a 170-pound mannequin. We take our fitness seriously. I've met those physical standards year after year.

What is it that drew you to firefighting in the beginning?

I got hired as an older worker, about the time most women want to raise a family. I liked the firefighting schedule. It allowed me time with my kids. My youngest is 12 and my oldest is 28. You can still be a mother. You can still be a woman. That's what I think my promotion is a testament to. Sometimes, when I was deployed, my children would stay with other firefighters' families. Fire service is a family.

What do your kids think of your career?

I've encouraged them to become firefighters. My sons, they're in awe; They think it's so cool rappelling off a building — but they're just not that into it. My daughter, she says, 'I want to be just like you.' She's inspired by the excitement and the empathy. Honestly, that's my drive right there.

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

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