In 1979, there were no women’s restrooms at fire stations in Fort Wayne.
In fact, a female firefighter had no where to sleep and was not allowed to stay the night at a station.
But that hardly mattered, since there were no female firefighters in the department.
That changed when the department hired Genois Wilson Brabson, who had been a dispatcher in the department five years prior.
She made history by becoming the first woman to become a full-fledged firefighter in Fort Wayne.
Tuesday, she showed her appreciation for the department’s new – and first female – chief when she gave a special gift to Amy Biggs, who was named to the position in July 2012.
From one first firefighter lady to another, Brabson said as she handed Biggs what turned out to be a small fire truck mounted on a block of wood wrapped delicately in paper.
The two women then hugged as reporters and a man filming scenes for a PBS documentary about Brabson looked on.
I couldn’t have been here without you, Biggs told Brabson.
Brabson never thought she’d be a trailblazer and didn’t set out to become a firefighter. It never was a dream of hers as a little girl.
Times in the mid-1970s, though, were tough economically, she said.
Brabson had just graduated from Indiana University, a single mom helped by her parents and looking for a job.
The only jobs she’d get interviews for were 50 miles from Fort Wayne.
I did not want to work 50 miles away, she said.
One day, she was handed a flier touting jobs in public service, such as the fire department or police department.
She thought: Why not?
Soon she was a dispatcher, then the department decided to begin hiring female firefighters.
Chief Thomas Loraine one day approached her at work and asked a simple question: Would you like to make history?
It didn’t take long for her to decide, Brabson said, but those were different times.
She worked through an injury or two as she went through the fire academy, and she worked through some of the sexism that existed in that day.
Brabson’s fire academy classmates were all behind her, she said, but there was some tension with the older firefighters.
The guys in the academy with me were like the brothers you always wanted. They looked at me as a sister, she said.
The older guys, it was probably a nightmare for them.
At first, Brabson was not allowed to stay at the station she worked at overnight.
She didn’t have a women’s restroom, either.
With her hiring, though, things were changing, and by 1995, when she retired, female firefighters were not such an uncommon sight.
That year, as Brabson was leaving, a young cadet named Amy Biggs was just entering the academy.
Fast forward 18 years, and Brabson is talking to Deputy Fire Chief Mark Nelson about the challenges facing the department now.
Gone are the days when firefighters worried about serving alongside womenor when there were no women’s restrooms in the fire department or women couldn’t stay the night.
Now the talk is about budget shortfalls and how to cover future annexations – if there are any.
There is a woman at the helm of the department who has now completed her first year in that position and has another woman to thank for making inroads in the department.
And for being the trailblazer she never set out to be.
You started it, Biggs said to Brabson on Tuesday.
You started it.