Amy Biggs is the first female chief of the Fort Wayne Fire Department. She sees herself not as a glass-ceiling breaker but more as part of a natural progression for women in any traditionally male-dominated profession. Find out how she got started in firefighting and what the department’s challenges are as we play 20 Questions.
How did you get started with the fire department?
I was working at a furniture manufacturing company in Grabill that was in the red when there was a fire in a field behind my house. Watching those guys working as a team appealed to me. It was choreographed chaos. I thought “that’s what I want to be a part of.” My father, Jack Biggs, was a police officer, and he said “Kid, you got to get into government service,” though he wanted me to go into law enforcement.
What’s the coolest thing about being a member of the Fort Wayne Fire Department?
The ability to have an impact. Even in the administrative role I’m serving in now, everything (I do) has an impact. We’re able to touch lives in such a unique way.
What’s the worst thing about being in the fire department?
We’re reaching people at the worst times of their lives. We are there to stop the loss, to stop the tragedy from getting worse. This is the lowest of the low (times) for people.
What does your appointment as the first female fire chief in the department’s history say about the role of women in the department?
That there’s opportunity. It is very inspiring. I have the opportunity to influence and inspire other people to achieve. There are women who’ve come up to me (during recruitment drives) and told me, “I’m here because of you.”
When were you the most afraid?
I was on the fire department, but I wasn’t working, because it was my sister’s wedding reception, and my dad had a massive heart attack. I didn’t see him collapse, but (people) came and found me. He’s on the ground in full heart attack, and I don’t have any of my equipment. It was that first real test, if you will, where I (couldn’t) change what happened. I’ve dealt with that grief thanks to the outpouring of support from the department. When you’re in a time of need, it is the depth of the (fire) family that helps you.
If you hadn’t become a firefighter, what would your career have been?
I was very interested in medicine. I was studying pre-veterinary medicine at Purdue. But I look at the fire department as saving my life in giving me purpose and direction.
As one of only a handful of women in the department, did you face any discrimination or abuse from the men?
Oh, they hazed me the same way they did everyone else. I was equally abused as the rest of my group! When I came on, people like Genois Wilson had already kicked down those doors.
What’s your favorite Fort Wayne memory?
The Three Rivers Festival Parade. It was always a treat for my mother, my grandmother and my aunt and me to sit on Berry Street to watch the parade. We’d get there at 6 a.m. with our blankets and lawn chairrs.
What are the challenges facing the fire department?
Fiscal. The fire department is the most critical piece of infrastructure the city has. Without the first measure of safety and security … we can’t grow as a city. Look at the tornadoes, look at the floods, and then look at the fire departments that have responded. Fire departments are absolutely vital.
What are the three characteristics a good firefighter needs?
The expression is: I fight what you fear. So they need compassion. Understanding the environment they’re going into. And good situational awareness. They need to be able to respond in the most appropriate way.
What safety action do people NOT take that would save lives?
Having working smoke detectors. It’s proven over and over that smoke detectors save lives. And yet people take the batteries out of the detectors. They make the choice consciously to remove those batteries.
Which is better: being on the fire line or being on the administrative side?
Being on the line. Life is so much more simple on the line!
What book are you reading now?
A book (retired Fire Chief) Pete Kelly gave me. “Cigars, Whiskey and Winning: Leadership Lessons from Ulysses S. Grant.” He marked passages for me.
How often do you change your lint filter?
Every time I change my laundry! A dryer fire can cause substantial damage, and yet (afterwards) you’ll find so much lint you could knit a sweater.
What’s your go-to firehouse recipe?
Lasagna. It feeds the masses, and it fills you up. I also love to make homemade cheesecakes.
What’s something people don’t know about firefighters?
People don’t know the different emergencies we respond to. People are also amazed at how many stations we have. We have 18 stations across the city, and if you’re not acutely aware of your neighborhood you don’t realize it.
When were you the most proud?
When I was appointed a captain in the operations division. My grandmother, Bernice France, was still alive, and she could witness that.
What were you like as a kid?
Very much a tomboy. Climbing trees and such. My brother and sister are 9 and 11 years older than me, so I had a lot of time to spend on my own. I had the run of things.
If there’s one thing you could change about yourself, what would it be and why?
Sometimes I’m too passionate about things. I have to find a balance. I went from “I love my job” to “I live my job,” and becoming unplugged from that is extremely difficult.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
Never stop trying. No matter how many things you’ve failed at or not accomplished, never stop trying.