Twenty years ago, Cathy Braswell made history as the first female firefighter at the Pine Bluff Fire and Emergency Services. Now, she's breaking another glass ceiling as the department's first female lieutenant. Braswell, along with two of her colleagues, was honored during the 2017 Promotional Ceremony at the Pine Bluff Fire and Emergency Services Training Center on Wednesday.
“We all know that firefighters have chosen what may be one of the most difficult career paths,” said Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington. “Sometimes, the men and women (who) have performed so heroically never receive a 'thank you' or the proper public recognition for their bravery yet that never seems to deter them from answering the call with diligence and with honor…”
Initially, Braswell hinted that she was unsure if a life of fighting fire was for her. But, after becoming more familiar with the industry, she knew it was the right fit for her at 28-years-old.
“After visiting and seeing what they do and how they (were) out helping save lives and property, why not,” she said of her commitment to become a firefighter.
When she was hired in 1997, she was one of only 15 women who applied to be in the department. According to Ray Jacks, who was fire chief at the time, Braswell was the first of three names on the eligibility list that went to the Civil Service Commission adding that she passed through every step of the process with good marks.
“She is going to have an outstanding career,” said Jacks in a 1997 interview with The Pine Bluff Commercial.
Being a female in a male-dominated career wasn't easy, according to Braswell. But, she says she did what she had to do to be a part of the team.
“There was a lot of role reversal at times,” said Braswell. “For instance, my hair was shoulder length. At that time, they didn't know what to do, so I had to get my hair cut down to the standard of a guy, which is not touching your ear (and) not touching your collar. It was probably less than an inch long.”
Even though the job was difficult at times, she praises her family for helping her get through. Starting with her husband, Howard Braswell, her children, Amberly Braswell Kitrell, Randy Moore Jr., daughter-in-law Colissia Moore, son-in-law Terry Kitrell and her three grandchildren, Braswell found the support she needed to sustain her over a 20-year-career.
“It takes a network,” she said. “You have to have a strong support system in order to do this job. So, when I'm away, I know that I can do my job and do it diligently because they are taking care of the home. I have a strong support system.”
Pine Bluff Fire and Emergency Services Captain Mark Fallis worked with Braswell as she moved up in rank. He described her as dedicated and good at her job. He went on to say that she puts “120 percent” into everything she does.
“I've been here for 32 years and she was my hose (woman) and I was a driver,” said Fallis. “She continued as my hose (woman) when I became lieutenant and when she made driver she became my permanent driver.”
During the ceremony, Fallis pinned Braswell — a moment he was honored to take part in.
“Cathy is one of the best females that I've ever worked with,” Fallis said. “And me personally, I'm kind of prejudice towards her because I feel like she's the best female in the department altogether. But, I've worked with her for so long.”
When Braswell is not working at the fire department, she's doing something else she loves—- substitute teaching. For the past 16 years, she's lent her services across the city at various schools in the Pine Bluff School District. Looking for another way to give back to the community, she found herself helping students.
“Our shift is 24 (hours) on and off 48, so we pretty much work three days a week,” Braswell said of her job at Pine Bluff Fire and Emergency Services. “So, there's so much downtime that you want to find something else to do and I'm more like a girly firefighter. So, I wanted to do like a girly job and the best place to be was to give back to the students.”
Braswell encourages students to always do their work and obey teachers. She also shares her world of firefighting by educating students on fire safety.
“I do incorporate what we do here and let the children know that education is the key to success,” she said. “I just tell them what we do and they listen. It works.”
Braswell, 49, graduated from the University of Arkansas at Monticello with a Bachelor of Science in business/office administration. She also attended Southeast Arkansas College where she received an Associate of Applied Science degree in fire science technology. Along with her educational training, Braswell has several fire-related certifications in addition to being a nationally registered emergency medical technician. She devotes her extra time to professional organizations including the Fraternal Order of Firefighters and community organization Banishing Racial Animosity Vigorously Everywhere (B.R.A.V.E).
“I feel that I'm here not for myself, Braswell said. “I'm here for the community and I do have a relationship with the community.”
Along with Braswell, Joseph Moring and Chris Geiggar were both promoted to engineer.
“It feels great,” said Geiggar of his promotion. “You work hard and you achieve your goals.”
Geiggar hopes to continue to move up in the ranks. Similar to Geiggar, Moring welcomes future opportunities to advance within the department.
“I just hope to do a good job and serve the community to the best of my ability and whatever comes with that I'll take it as it goes,” said Moring.
With Braswell's achievement of becoming the first female lieutenant, she has opened the door for others to follow in her footsteps. Sharing in her experience, Jefferson County District Court Judge Kim Bridgeforth says she became the first female judge in the county.
“It doesn't matter if you're young or old, if you're male or you're female — if you aspire to something and you work hard this young lady (Braswell) says you can do it,” said Bridgeforth who swore in Braswell.
Pine Bluff Fire and Emergency Services Fire Chief Shauwn Howell says Braswell's journey serves as proof to women that they can become firefighters as well as successfully move up the ladder.
“It's not some fairytale that you read about or something that's way off — it's reality,” he said. “I think it's something that is tangible, especially where we are geographically in the south and in our city. So, it's just a win-win for everybody (and) it's positivity on all fronts.”
Howell added that to be able to see Braswell promoted to lieutenant under his leadership is one more accomplishment that can be added to his tenure.
“It's just a time of reflection to look at how far we've come,” said Howell. “If we look back 20 years ago, she was the first female firefighter and here we are twenty years later, she's our first lieutenant as a woman. So, that just shows progress and it shows that we're evolving, our culture is evolving and our city is evolving and that's what I'm all about—- progression.”
A journey 20 years in the making, Braswell says she's glad to be a part of history yet again.
“It's an awesome feeling to know that we are in the right direction and evolving,” she said.
Braswell states that with discipline, dedication, hard work, commitment and self-purpose, the sky is the limit when it comes to pursuing goals. Those same ideals she carried with her during her career and remain instilled in her today.
“If you believe it, you can achieve it,” she said.