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Few Black women fight fires in Baltimore. These firefighters are cultivating a sisterhood

Few Black women fight fires in Baltimore. These firefighters are cultivating a sisterhood
Few Black women fight fires in Baltimore. These firefighters are cultivating a sisterhood 03:09

In honor of Black History Month, WJZ taking time to acknowledge the trailblazers in our community.

BALTIMORE -- According to the National Fire Protection Association, African-Americans comprise about 8 percent of career firefighters nationwide.

Women of color make up an even smaller percentage in the fire service.

The latest data shows Black female firefighters make up about 7 percent of uniformed personnel in the Baltimore City Fire Department.

When it comes to higher rankings, two Black women are fire captains, and a third one is on the way, according to the fire department. For the city's local heroes, it means more to them to not only represent their community but close the diversity gap

Captain Shanntel Wilkins was promoted to fire suppression captain in September of 2023. She is only one of two Black female fire captains currently serving in the fire department.

"C'mon we are ready to take over," Wilkins laughed.

When Wilkins was a child, she didn't see women wear boots and straps.

"I did not think about a woman being a firefighter," she said. "I never saw any."

"I just woke up one day and decided I wanted to get into something my little girl could see and be proud of me," she said. 

But hesitation and challenges came as she leaped to chase after a new dream. She remembers people making sly comments as she pushed through the fire academy before walking across the stage at graduation about 18 years ago.

"You do hear little things like, how does she make it?" she said. "Like you hear that. You walk past that."

Wilkins used those words to help motivate her to take the next step. It's a similar tactic that Tiffany Randolph uses as an EMT and firefighter with the fire department.

"To come into a white male-dominated career is a second task," Randolph said. "It's just task full, but not impossible."

Randolph made the career switch seven years ago from social work to continue fulfilling her desire to help people. 

But she is reminded that she is a minority. According to the city's 2023 Equity Statistics, there are 29 African American females in the suppression unit and 58 in EMS of more than 1,600 uniformed personnel in the city's fire department.

"I think men bring a strong sense of bravado, ego-driven, and women do not lead with that," Randolph said. "We are not impulsive typically like that. We like to think first, especially since it's such a dangerous job."

The African American population in Baltimore City is about 63 percent, according to the latest census. 

Randolph and Wilkins say the representation needs to be reflected in the department because their culture and perspective can save even more lives in underserved communities.

It can be overwhelming to be one of the few. But creating a sisterhood is vital.

"You don't get that feeling of ridicule or shame when you go to a fellow Black woman who has endured the same type of struggle like you have," Randolph said.

Randolph and Wilkins have encouraged one another to pave their paths. But they make it their mission to recruit new faces with the hopes of extending their sisterhood.

The fire department is working to bridge the diversity gap by offering training to high schoolers so that once they graduate, they have a high chance of joining the fire department. 

To spark interest at a younger age, the fire department also offers youth summer camps, including Camp Spark, which is designed just for girls.

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