Christine Richardson was a basketball standout at Virginia State University. Tina Watkins was a track and field star at Huguenot High School in Richmond, VA. Now as adults, they've used that competitive spirit to knock down barriers and climb to the top in a male dominated profession. Richardson and Watkins recently became the first women to rise through the ranks and become battalion chiefs with the Richmond Department of Fire and Emergency Services. Both Battalion Chiefs Watkins and Richardson ran the full gauntlet; recruit, firefighter, lieutenant, captain, to battalion chief.
This is a major breakthrough for the Richmond VA. Fire and Emergency Services Department which has a 152 year history, making it one of the oldest fire departments in the nation. "Another hallmark is achieved today," said Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones. These trailblazers are old friends. They first met as counselors in Virginia's Juvenile Justice Department. Chief Watkins joined Richmond Fire in 1988 and Chief Richardson in 2000.
Nationwide, only two percent of firefighters are female. "Yes, people are surprised when they hear I'm a firefighter," said Chief Richardson. "The first response is usually 'I can't believe you drive that big truck." Chief Watkins encourages young women to consider following in her footsteps. "A lot of women still feel like they can't do the job," said Chief Watkins. "That isn't so. You don't have to be a man or act like a man. You can come in here, carry yourself as a woman, be respected as a woman, and become part of a team."
Chief Watkins grew up in Richmond's Byrd Park neighborhood, playing sports year-round, with three athletic brothers. At Huguenot, she excelled on the Falcons' track and field squad and was named team MVP in her senior year.
Chief Richardson, standing 5 foot 11, was a first-team All-State basketball player at Oxon Hill High School in Maryland. Richardson attended Virginia State University on a basketball scholarship. "You don't have to be athletic to be a firefighter, but a certain mental fortitude and competitive edge does help you progress through the ranks," said Chief Richardson. Being flabby is not an option for Richmond's firefighters. Chief Watkins remains fit bowling and playing golf. Chief Richardson lifts weights, rides a bicycle and trains on an elliptical machine.
During the same ceremony honoring Chiefs Watkins and Richardson, Robert S. Baumgardner Jr., John Harkness, Clarence Lewis III and Orlando Morris were promoted to the rank of battalion chief from captain. "The promotion of six captains at the same time is unprecedented for our Department," said Fire Chief Robert Creecy. "Honoring this group as they assume their responsibility in this mission-critical role is a historic and very proud time for our organization."
There is one other female battalion chief with Richmond Fire, Tracy Thomas who joined the department from outside and did not go through the fire academy.
PHOTO: Richmond, VA., Fire Department battalion chiefs Tina Watkins, left, and Christine Richardson chat at their historic promotion. Photo by Jerome Reid