MILWAUKEE — There is only one woman with the title Deputy Chief within the Milwaukee Fire Department. She's also the first and only Black woman to hold such a prestigious position. Now, she has a passion for helping others who look like her rise, too.
Deputy Chief Sharon Purifoy-Smoots was promoted to Deputy Chief of EMS in December 2020. Now, near her office, her photo is on a wall alongside photos of each of the other chief officers of the department. Most of those photos are of white men.
"This would probably tell our citizens that our department as a whole doesn't reflect our city, but I would like for those same people to know that we have a chief that's working on that," she said when asked what that wall might show the citizens of Milwaukee. "I tell myself that I am going to have to play a part in helping get more females on this wall."
The rise through the ranks was historic for Purifoy-Smoots. She grew up on 40th and Auer in Milwaukee's Sherman Park neighborhood and says this job is about more than rank and reputation.
"I had never seen any African American females, at all, as firefighters - or males. It was just nothing that you saw back then. But, the great thing now is that those little girls who are growing up in that Sherman Park neighborhood now get the chance to see a fire engine or a fire truck go by and see somebody who looks like them," she said.
Sharon first tested to join the academy in 1996. However, she said it wasn't until 2003 that she actually got a chance to join the academy. That's after the Milwaukee Brotherhood of Firefighters sparked concern about equal employment opportunities. When she joined, she said she was one of the few women to graduate and go on to become a firefighter.
"In the academy, I started off with 3 or 4 other women. I was the only woman that finished," said Purifoy-Smoots.
Fast forward to 2022, and there are 17 black females on the department today. But Deputy Chief Purifoy-Smoots said there's still a long way to go. She believes progress continues with a focus on representation in department leadership.
"It's wonderful to be the first, but somebody had to be the first. I think the more important thing is being number 2,3,4,5,6 and me having an integral role in helping those ladies get on that wall.
Sharon isn't the only person in her family making history. Her husband, Deputy Chief Dwayne Smoots, is currently the longest tenured African-American member of the Milwaukee Fire Department.