NY city promotes its first female fire chief

Sara Errington said it took "a little pushing," but she's happy with how the Syracuse Fire Department has grown into a more modern, equitable workplace

By Chris Baker
Syracuse Media Group

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — When Sara Errington joined the Syracuse Fire Department, she was showed a list of fire stations where she couldn't work. She was a woman, and those stations didn't have coed facilities.

Soon after, when she asked to be part of the hazardous materials team, she was again told no. A woman of child-bearing age shouldn't be around hazardous materials, officials told her. She should seek out another assignment.

That was 2004.

Fast-forward 14 years. Errington has ascended through the ranks of the nearly all-male department and, earlier this year, was made a district chief. She's the first woman to ever hold that rank with the SFD. 

From her cramped office at Station 9 near Eastwood, Errington laughed lightly while reflecting on her career to this point. It took "a little pushing" to find or make opportunities in the department. But today, she's happy with how the department has responded, adapted and grown into a more modern, equitable workplace. 

"There have been times when I haven't had opportunities other people have had, and there are times when I knew it was because I'm a woman," she said. "But those roadblocks have usually fallen away with a little pushing. Now I feel like the opportunities are pretty much equal for everybody."

When Errington joined the department in 2004 she was one of a handful of women among more than 300 firefighters. Currently, there are a dozen women with the department -- less than 4 percent of the total force. That number reflects the national average for women in career fire departments, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Today, Errington is a certified hazmat responder. She's one of the department's top-ranking officials. She's watched as stations have been outfitted to accommodate men and women, and, during her time, has seen the department adopt its first-ever maternity plan. And now, she's outranked by just seven people in the department -- its deputy chiefs and the chief. 

Errington is personable and gregarious, but was a little reluctant to share her story. She prefers to stay out of the spotlight, she said. And she doesn't want to sound like she's complaining about the way things were. Every time she pushed, she said, someone listened and something changed. 

"I've had so many men help me and support me and encourage me that I don't want any quibbles I have about treatment to overshadow that," she said. "[Lt.] Joe Galloway was a guy in charge of some human resources stuff. If I was to point out something like that to him, he would work to make it better. And there were guys on the job like Chief [Michael] Monds who just had my back."

Errington grew up in Indiana. She came from a family of academics. Her parents were teachers and she pursued that line of work as a young woman. She attended Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts before earning a master's degree and a doctorate in early African-American history, both from Brown University. 

Soon after that, she found her options in academia were limited. So she decided to pursue journalism. She enjoyed meeting and talking to new people (and still does). Journalism gave her plenty of chances for that.

In the late 1990s she started working as a reporter, first in the suburbs of Cleveland, then at The Post-Standard, where she covered the western suburbs. 

While covering a breaking news shift for the Camillus bureau sometime in 2000, Errington responded to a fire on West Genesee Street in Fairmount. She was watching the firefighters battle an inferno when something clicked.

"I went to cover this fire and was just standing there and they looked-- it's not that you have fun when someone's losing property, but they were clearly enjoying their work," she said. "I said, it looked interesting."

There was a county official on site that night who recruits firefighters. Errington got talking to him. Within a week, she said, he'd put an application in her hand for the volunteer department in DeWitt, where she lived. She joined, she said, because she wanted a hobby -- something to do in addition to work.

Soon after, she took a test to qualify for the Syracuse Fire Department, a paying job. She passed with high marks.

The city hired Errington in 2004. There were only a few women hired in the department before Errington. Danita Thomas was the first. She was hired in 1987 and retired in 2009.

Errington was promoted to captain in 2013 (another first for a woman with SFD). Earlier this year, Monds, who was sworn in as chief in January, told her she'd been promoted to district chief. She's one of 12 district chiefs citywide. 

The base salary for a district chief is $85,344.

The International Association of Women in Fire & Emergency Services estimates there are only 150 women who are district chiefs or battalion chiefs throughout the U.S.

In her office at Station 9 is a small cot where she sleeps two nights out of every eight, she said. There's a bathroom, some lockers and a desk filled with paperwork. The walls are covered in charts, maps and procedural notes.

The new job involves a lot more administrative work, Errington said. But it still lets her get out on a scene. Just minutes into an interview Monday, a two-tone alarm sounded. That's the code for a fire. She bounded out of her chair, grabbed a jacket, and took off with siren blaring in her chief's SUV.

"I might be back soon or I might be back in a while," she said over her shoulder on her way out the door.

Copyright 2018 Syracuse Media Group

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