LARGO — Firefighting tends to be a male-dominated, physically challenging profession.
Shelby Willis is 5 feet 4 inches tall. But that didn't stop her from climbing up the ranks to become Largo's first female fire chief and the only female fire chief in Pinellas County.
"I'm very excited and a little overwhelmed," she said Monday, her first day as chief. "I'm looking forward to the challenge."
Willis, 45, was named chief after serving as Largo's acting chief for six months. She took over in March when her predecessor, Mike Wallace, resigned during an internal investigation into his leadership style and low department morale.
Female fire chiefs are exceedingly rare. The only previous one in Pinellas County was Vicky Murphy, who led Seminole's fire department from 1996 to 2000. Murphy was the first woman to lead a professional fire department in Florida.
During Willis' 16-year career as a firefighter-paramedic, she has had to find alternate ways to complete some tasks.
"You learn how to do things smartly instead of relying on brute strength," she said six years ago when she became Largo's first female division chief. "I have to do it in a different way."
Willis went through grueling training to become Largo's first female SWAT medic.
After 53 people applied for the chief's position, Willis beat out two out-of-town finalists for the job, said Largo City Manager Mac Craig.
"Shelby has done a really good job," Craig said. "She's going to make a good chief."
"She's sharp," said Mayor Pat Gerard, adding that becoming Largo's first female fire chief is "quite an accomplishment."
Willis moved to Clearwater as a child. She spent four years as a police officer in the Air Force before returning to Florida in the early 1990s.
It was on a ride-along with a fire department during her paramedic training that Willis decided to become a firefighter. "I knew that second that's what I wanted to do," she recalled.
Willis began working for Largo as a firefighter-paramedic in 1997. She earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Florida in 2003. She was promoted from lieutenant, to division chief, to deputy chief.
In a Fire Department with about 150 employees but only a handful of female firefighters, Willis said she always held herself to the same standards as male colleagues.
Willis is taking over during a tricky time, as firefighter contracts are being negotiated and fire pension benefits are at issue.
"We don't have any issues running calls. We provide critical services to the public without any incident," she said. "The department has recently had a serious morale problem, and we have started to make changes to improve morale."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151.