Big Break: Gina Sweat reveals her big break on the way to becoming MFD’s 1st female director

Updated: Feb. 20, 2020 at 9:55 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Sound the alarm -- there’s major girl power at the Memphis Fire Department.

Gina Sweat made history as the first ever female director of MFD, and she says she absolutely loves her job.

“I’m a prime example of where hard work meets opportunity and then some really good timing," said Sweat.

She’s a farm girl raised in Middleton Tennessee who says she did everything from working in her parent’s bake shop to helping her grandfather cut grass.

Sweat was the only woman in her class who tried out to be a firefighter. Now she’s MFD’s leading lady.

She says it’s really surreal.

The top woman in charge has been with MFD for nearly three decades now, rising through the ranks.

Step one: The physical fitness test. Considering she played sports in high school, that was no sweat.

Hurdle No. 2: Fire training. Once then-26-year-old Sweat made it through the academy, her career exploded.

“First promotion, I made driver and drove an engine downtown. It was really an exciting job," said Sweat. "Next is lieutenant. Went through the assessment process for battalion chief, was assigned to the station at Union and McLean in my neighborhood so it was kind of cool to be the chief in the neighborhood where I live. A few years after that, I made division chief.”

Eight years later, Sweat’s big break dialed in.

“I was here at headquarters and I had just pulled out of the station and my phone rings, and if you know our mayor, he’s what you see is what you get," she said. "Literally he says ‘hey Gina, this is Jim,’ and I’m like OK, Jim. Basically he said ‘I just called to ask if you’d be my fire director,’ and I’m like, well sure. It was really one of those moments that I’ll probably never forget.”

At first, Sweat didn’t see herself as a firefighter. She wanted to be a veterinarian. But a few frightening on-the-job experiences sparked her career fire, and she knew a job saving lives was her destiny.

“It was in 1994 and we made a fire at a paper plant down off Watkins and one of my firefighters, one of my best friends at the station, he got trapped under where the bales of paper actually fell on him," said Sweat. "So we dug him out literally by hand for 46 minutes, and that was 26 years ago and I still remember that."

She says her fellow firefighter couldn’t return to work because his leg was broken in several places.

“Within a month or so after that, we had the fire at 750 Adams where two firefighters got killed,” she said. "To be honest with you, there was a moment I was about ready to quit. Roll forward about three months and we actually had another fire at 750 Adams and I kinda got separated from my crew, and I ran up 11 flights of stairs. They actually had started dragging the hose line down the hallway. It was smokey and I was actually there by myself, and at that point I was like I’m not going. But then I was like I gotta go, but if I don’t go then I’ve gotta quit and I don’t wanna quit, I kinda love this job. So that moment, I stood there and had that little conversation with myself and I dropped to my knees, hit the floor, caught up with my company. And it was that defining moment that I’m going to be a firefighter, and it was just a matter of finding the courage when you’re really scared to death, and that was that moment for me.”

Watch the WMC archive story about the deadly April 11, 1994 fire.

Although this boss lady is at the top rung of her success ladder, she says climbing as a female, made her a spectacle.

“For many, many years, even today I still feel like I’m being watched," said Sweat. "For the first several years, every time I would go to a fire I would have people watching me. A lot of times the guys would be...I’m working and they’d be standing over in the corner watching me and I’m like ‘What’s going on? I’m working.'”

While Sweat is at the pinnacle of her career, she says she paid her dues to get here.

“I really worked hard. I put in the work. I went to school. I worked the hard assignments. I worked the hard projects," said Sweat. "I put the resume together and then there’s this caveat -- I happen to be a woman too.”

From a mischievous side hustle...

“My very first job was selling sticks on the corner in Memphis when I was a little bitty kid.” a big rig that bears her name, Director Gina Sweat is now living her dream.

When asked what’s the toughest part about being a chief, she jokingly said “media interviews,” and that the mayor didn’t ask her as many questions as we did.

When she’s not handling department business from her office along the river, this MFD director loves giving daps and enjoying play time with possible future firefighters, all the while remembering where she came from and what the men and women of the Memphis Fire Department are here to do.

“I’ve seen things that most people should never really have to see," she said. "People call us when they’re having likely one of the worst days of their life. You see the destruction that fire causes, you see people in accidents that are injured, things that you really don’t want to see. In the moment you realize that you’re there to make the difference.”

Do you know anyone who’s had a big break? Maybe it’s you!

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