As of Sept. 16, Shelby Willis is the city of Largo’s first female fire chief.
LARGO – After a nationwide search, the city of Largo decided to permanently install Deputy Chief Shelby Willis, who has been leading the department since April, as chief of Largo Fire Rescue.
Willis took over the department after the resignation of former Chief Mike Wallace, who left April 1 after an internal investigation revealed low morale and questionable leadership decisions in the department. Since then, Willis has sought to openly collaborate with all levels of fire personnel and “handle issues proactively,” in an effort to reverse the negative outlook, she said.
She was excited to learn Sept. 13 that she had been chosen for the permanent position, though she admitted that a “bit of anxiety,” followed as she realized that she no longer had the excuse of being “just the interim chief.”
“You realize the full responsibility and gravity of the position,” she said.
The city formally announced the decision Sept. 16. Dozens of applicants applied to be Largo Fire Chief, a field that was narrowed down to eight semifinalists who were interviewed by telephone, according to a press release. Representatives from fire labor, executive management and command staff interviewed the four finalists, with each of the panels choosing Willis as their pick for fire chief.
Willis said including a cross section of the department on decisions was exactly her policy as interim chief. In April, she asked Largo’s firefighters to be patient as the organization realigned its priorities to work together.
“And they’ve met us. They met me and met the administrative staff halfway, and it’s been a great experience,” Willis said. “We have a good collaborative relationship at this point. It’s just going to get better.”
Willis said she emphasized moving past the low morale and well identified issues that plagued the department, bringing fire personnel to the table to discuss solutions instead.
“I try to meet all levels of the organization, just to get their input and get their feedback. And we’ll continue to do that going forward,” she said.
A hiring board made up of firefighters, union officers, lieutenants and command officers also interviewed applicants for five open firefighter positions, due to start Oct. 1.
“They interviewed the people, they ranked the people. They handed me a list on who we want to hire, and that’s what I did,” Willis said.
The ensuing support of the department has been overwhelming, she said.
“It’s just even more exciting, because now, they’re ready to move forward as much as we are,” Willis said.
The ladder to leadership
Willis, 45, is Largo’s first female fire chief but said she didn’t notice the shattering of any glass ceilings as she rose through the ranks at Largo Fire Rescue. She’s always felt like part of the team.
“The uniqueness is lost on me,” she said. “In fire and police in the city of Largo, it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, doesn’t matter your color or ethnicity. If you can do the job, you’re accepted.”
Willis joined the U.S. Air Force as a security police officer at age 17, fresh out of high school and young enough that her parents had to sign permission for her to join. After serving between 1985 and 1989, Willis returned home to Florida and found her initial career ambitions thwarted.
“I had a very difficult time finding a job as a police officer. There wasn’t a lot of opportunities at the time,” she said.
She decided to go back to school to become a paramedic, also earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of South Florida.
While in paramedic school in 1995, an ironic call during a ride along with a Largo engine crew changed Willis’ career path once more.
“The engine company I was with got a call for a crematorium, of all places,” she said.
It was a real fire, a full alarm assignment. She watched as the firefighters began pulling out hoses and running into the burning crematorium. The scene was impressive.
“I knew that second that I wanted to be a firefighter,” she said.
She was a volunteer at the Redington Beach Fire Department before Largo Fire Rescue hired her as a paramedic/firefighter in 1997. She set her sights on becoming division chief of emergency medical services first. She achieved that feat in 2006, realizing that it might be possible to achieve the top job as she rose to deputy chief.
It was a challenge to accept some of the decisions Wallace made after becoming fire chief in October 2007, Willis said.
“It’s always difficult when you don’t agree with policy that’s coming out of your supervisor’s office,” she said.
Especially given her military background, Willis remained firm in her stance of supporting the policymaker of the organization.
“I did have the ability to walk into the chief’s office and say, ‘I don’t agree with this; here’s an alternative perspective.’ But in the end, my job is to implement the polices that he or she sets,” she said.
A perfect score
The city of Largo surprised Willis July 2 with a plaque commending her most recent educational achievement: a perfect score in completion of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer program. She is Largo’s third executive officer to complete the program, and one of only 188 graduates in the history of the program to have scored a 4.0.
Willis said she didn’t expect to earn the distinction when she began the intense, four-year program that involves a thesis paper of applied research.
“I didn’t think it was possible, but I was really, really excited about the topic, and I think that helped tremendously,” she said.
For her topic, she explored the best way to prepare firefighters for retirement. The process is often difficult for professionals who are used to having a tremendous amount of responsibility and a constant team of peers with them.
“They don’t walk into a scene and take control anymore. It’s hard to give up,” Willis explained. “They have to have something to retire into … if they’re just going to do the honey-do list and play golf once a week, it’s usually not enough to keep them interested and keep them content with their retirement.”
The study found that the best policy was to prepare retiring firefighters at least five years out, making sure that they knew what major hobby, new career, part-time work or volunteer efforts would become their new passion. Former firefighters without a plan tended to get sick, become depressed and have other medical issues, Willis said.
Willis said that the department has seen a gradual turnaround since April.
“It’s been a slow and steady change. It certainly didn’t happen overnight, and we’ve still got a ways to go, but we’re getting there,” she said.
She plans to maintain a proactive approach to leading the department, involving all levels of the department in decisions and constantly soliciting feedback. She will have to hire a deputy chief immediately, as she was filling the roles of both interim chief and deputy chief while a final decision was being made. A series of successive promotions will follow, but for now, Willis said she doesn’t anticipate making any other big changes to the department.
It will be important for both the fire leadership and its firefighters to work together to move the department in a better direction, she explained.
“I think the field is trying to see if we mean what we say. Are we going to be able to keep up this attitude and this forward movement? As we show them that, they’ll also meet us with their continued excitement and their contribution,” she said.
Willis has been married to her husband, Victor, for 21 years, and they have a 6-year-old son, Brody.