Lisa Forrest may be small in stature, but over the course of her nine year career in the Philadelphia Fire Department, she has had some pretty big accomplishments; the most recent of which, made history.
"I worked really hard for it, but you just never know until you know," Forrest said. "So when I found out I was very excited, and yes, just very proud that I was able to reach that goal."
In a little less than a month, 32-year-old Forrest will be officially sworn in as the Fire Captain of Engine 73, located at 76th and Ogontz, in the heart of the neighborhood she grew up in as a child. But she’s not just becoming captain. When she’s sworn in, Forrest will be the first African-American female fire captain in the history of the Department.
“There are only two female captains in the Philadelphia Fire Department; I will be the third and the only African-American female. That’s amazing,” she said.
Forest has come a long way.
During her early years with the department, she sacrificed hands-on experience for staff positions, so that she could have time to be at home with her then infant daughter. A single parent, Forrest, made the most of her time working for the Department’s recruitment unit, informing people in the community about opportunities for employment in fire service. Even then, Forrest says, she made sure she kept her field skills sharp.
"In my short years with the Department, I’ve done just about everything. When I first started out, I worked in a fire house as the first and only female firefighter at that station. Later on, I taught high school students, and then I worked in the recruitment unit, and I always worked extra shifts on the weekends to keep my hands on it so I wouldn’t get rusty with working in the field," she said.
After only four years in the department, Forrest was promoted to lieutenant in 2008. Shortly thereafter, she set her eyes on another goal: Captain.
In 2011, Forrest took the captain’s promotional exam for the first time, but due to distractions related to motherhood, she didn’t pass. Had she passed then, Forrest would have been named the first female captain in the history of the department.
When she took the test for the second time earlier this year, however, she got the result she was hoping for.
In her new role, Forrest will oversee and respond to fires with her own platoon of three firefighters, as well as manage three other lieutenants and the firefighters who serve under them.
Forrest also serves on the board of Club Valiants, Inc., an organization dedicated to community service and the support of minority firefighters. Forrest paid homage to the organization that presented her with its President’s Award for her outstanding service, professionalism and dedication during its 50th anniversary celebration last year.
"As a result of their efforts, more African-Americans were able to not only get a job, but to be promoted. They paved the way. If it wasn’t for that organization, I believe that I wouldn’t be standing here today," she said.
The president of Club Valiants, Eric Fleming, says the organization stood by Forrest as she pursued her career in fire service, but says she earned her current position on her own.
"As much as the organization would like to take credit, she put in the work and prepared herself for her own professional development to be in the position that she’s in," Fleming said.
“She’s a hard worker and she’s very dedicated to the organization and to helping—not just members of our organization—but any individual to succeed and prosper in the fire department and in the club.”
Fleming says Forrest both represents the mission of Club Valiants and serves as an example of how to overcome a number of odds to accomplish goals.
"At Club valiant, our personal motto is honor comes through courage and good conduct. Captain Forrest is the epitome of what this organization is all about," he said.
"She is about 4-foot-11. So, to be so fierce and such a warrior in such a small frame is just tremendous. She has a lot of obstacles: not only being African-American, not only being a female, but also being small in stature in a man’s job where strength and size matter. That’s why her story is so telling. You look at the package and you say, how can someone like that compete in an arena with everybody else, but she does a great job."
Soon to be retired Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers gave Forrest the nickname "Lisa the lion heart."
Forrest says she recently spoke with Ayers and thanked him for his role in her success.
"I called him to just to thank him. I took the test, but he has the ultimate say on who gets promoted. He was a valiant member whose shoulders I said we stand on," she said. "As commissioner, he made sure his people we’re taken care of. I hope the momentum he created the strides that he took for African-Americans in the Department will carry on. He has a legacy of his own, and I just hope we can keep it alive."
Now in her second week as acting captain of Engine 73, Forrest says she’s excited about being back in the field, serving her community.
"Every day I go to work, I get to help somebody, whether it’s putting up a smoke alarm, whether they have a medical problem, or if there’s a fire and I need to put the fire out. I like that hands-on experience and knowing that no day is the same," she said.
"I’m excited about being back in the community on a full time basis especially because the community I’m serving is the community that I grew up in. It’s just a good feeling to be able to serve."