A Norman Rockwell painting would have a fire chief pictured as a wise and seasoned older man with white hair and lines in his face wearing a white helmet with a gold eagle on top.
Shelby Willis looks nothing like that. She's the new chief of Largo Fire Rescue, and one of the few female fire chiefs in the state. She's blonde with a pony tail. She's a working mother and wife and in love with her job.
"I work for a city and fire department that doesn't care if you're a male or female," she says. "If you can do the job, you're accepted."
PAYING HER DUES
It's not like she walked in the door and someone said "You're the chief." Willis worked her way up through the ranks for 16 years to deputy chief, interim chief, and then recently, fire chief.
All the while, she worked side-by-side with hundreds of other firefighters and paramedics, mostly male.
"There's never ever been a day when I wasn't accepted because I'm a female," she says.
She's 46 years old with a 6-year-old son and a husband who works in risk management. There's no doubt that she took her own risks as a first responder. She was trained as a SWAT medic accompanying Largo police officers into hostage stand-offs and other dangerous assignments.
THE UPS AND DOWNS
Willis likes her red, unmarked, Dodge Charger equipped with strobe lights and a siren, though she's quick to point out that it gets very good gas mileage.
But she's responsible for more than 130 Largo firefighters who put their lives on the line every day.
"It's very sobering to put on this helmet and realize the responsibility of wearing it," she says with a serious tone.
She says anytime a firefighter is injured, she responds to the scene to coordinate his or her care.
Much of the tactical firefighting and rescue work is done by officers of lesser rank. When the chief responds to a scene, the news is usually not good.
COOL HELMET MOM
What does her 6-year-old think of his mom being chief?
"He absolutely loves it, but he knows mom is gone a lot as well. I have late nights and he understands that," she said.
At night, she could be on the scene of a big fire or attending a commission meeting at City Hall. As head of a large city department, much of her time is spent on budgets and administration. But, when a big call comes in, she still feels the rush of adrenaline as she jumps in her Charger and turns on the lights and siren.
FOX 13 / WTVT-TV
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