Michelle Fitzsimmons is proud to become the second woman in the FDNY’s history to be promoted to battalion chief, but she does have one regret.
“I’m going to miss riding in the front of the big red truck,” Fitzsimmons, 50, joked before her promotion on Thursday, which will leave her in charge of several of the department’s ladder and engine companies.
Taking more of a strategic role instead of being able to respond to fire scenes and handle rescues will take a bit of getting used to for Fitzsimmons, who still fondly recalls the first fire she ever responded to.
“I remember going there and remember all the people who were working that day,” she said. “It was in a bedroom in a private dwelling and I remember having people say to me, ‘So, your first fire?’ because I had this big grin on my face.”
Nearly 20 years later, Fitzsimmons again had a wide grin on her face under a surgical mask as she and more than three dozen other FDNY and EMS officers were promoted at the FDNY Fire Academy on Randalls Island. The ceremony followed all of the city’s coronavirus social-distancing rules, so no family, friends or colleagues could attend.
Fitzsimmons’ wife, DiAnna, waited in their car during the ceremony.
“Michelle is an accomplished person, an outstanding fire officer, and a role model for so many women and men in the department," FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro said in a statement.
Fitzsimmons, who has spent the past few years as commander of Ladder 12 in Chelsea, will be following in the footsteps of Rochelle (Rocky) Jones, who in 2003 became the first woman in the department to be promoted to battalion chief, the highest uniformed rank ever achieved by a woman. Jones retired from the FDNY in 2011.
“There hasn’t been a female battalion chief in nine years,” Fitzsimmons said. “(Jones) laid out some great tracks for me to follow and for me to have this opportunity."
“It shows that if you put your mind to something and work really hard and put the time in, you can achieve anything,” she added. "And the department has supported me and enabled me to achieve that.”
Both Fitzsimmons’ grandfather and great-grandfather were city firefighters, with her grandfather retiring as a battalion chief in 1968. Fitzsimmons joined the department in May 2001 as the only woman in her graduating class.
A few years later, when Fitzsimmons became a lieutenant, her sister joined the FDNY as a firefighter.
“I was able to prove that I was capable of doing the job, which went a long way when it came to being accepted,” Fitzsimmons said. “There was always a reaction when someone had to work with a woman, but now there are a lot more women, so that doesn’t happen anymore." “It used to be a big thing,” she added. “I would be stopped on the street by people who said they had never seen a lady firefighter before."
The FDNY only opened its doors to women in the early 1980s following a historic federal gender-discrimination lawsuit. There are currently 125 women firefighters and officers in the FDNY, about 1% of the department’s uniformed firefighting force.
“When I joined, I knew all of the women on the job. In my head, I knew where everyone of them was. Today, I don’t know who they all are," Fitzsimmons said. “We’re getting to a point where our numbers are continuing to grow and women can see opportunities.”