by Moxye Staff
An EMS captain with 21 years on the job is the first African-American woman in the FDNY to achieve the rank of deputy chief.
Capt. Tonya Boyd, who joined the FDNY’s Emergency Medical Services while in college as a way to make money, said she never dreamed her career would reach such heights.
“I’m so excited and I am so blessed,” the EMS officer told the Daily News.
“After hearing about the promotion, I couldn’t believe it. I feel like I’ve knocked down a door and opened it for a lot of EMTs just starting on this job,” said Boyd.
“African-American women will see someone who looks like them as a deputy chief and they will know more is possible — their careers won’t top out at paramedic or even lieutenant,” said the captain of Station 39 in Brooklyn.
Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said Boyd’s success was due to her efforts.
“Tonya is not only helping to raise the bar for our ability to provide pre-hospital care, she’s also demonstrating to young women of all backgrounds the incredible rewarding career they can achieve in the FDNY,” Nigro said.
As a young woman growing up in Brooklyn, Boyd, who described herself as “fortysomething,” planned to follow her grandmother into nursing.
But a need for cash while in nursing school sent her looking for work — and a cousin suggested she get an EMT license.
Thanks to classes offered at Brooklyn College, Boyd passed the state exam. On Jan. 27, 1997, she became an official employee of the FDNY.
It was just after then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani merged the city’s cash-strapped 911 EMS system with the Fire Department — a joining that not everyone in the FDNY embraced.
“We were very merger-oriented,” Boyd recalled. “We got through it.”
She quickly set her sights on the next challenge — becoming a paramedic.
“The FDNY offered a wonderful program that let us go to school from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.,” Boyd said. “I became a paramedic after about seven years.”
Boyd didn’t stop there, moving on to lieutenant and then captain.
But the path from rank-and-file to officer isn’t as clear-cut in EMS as it is on the FDNY’s firefighting side.
Firefighters take civil service promotional exams for officer ranks and move up in rank according to a scored hiring list. Only the very top brass are appointed at the discretion of FDNY leadership.
In EMS, a civil service promotion exam is only given for lieutenant. Promotions above that rank are awarded by discretionary appointment.
With roughly 4,000 employees, EMS is far more diverse in gender and race than the city’s firefighting ranks. Women EMTs and paramedics comprise roughly 35% of the non-officer workforce.
Above the rank of lieutenant, there are “only a handful of women who make it to captain, and even fewer to deputy chief,” said lawyer Yetta Kurland.
The FDNY has faced gender and race discrimination lawsuits brought by Kurland on behalf of EMS Officers Union Local 3621, which has alleged that women and minorities get unfairly bypassed in the discretionary appointment system.
Kurland said she was “delighted” to hear of Boyd’s pending promotion.
“We hope [the city] will take seriously the concerns that have been raised with regards to the promotional processes on the EMS side of the department and take additional steps to promote others who deserve it,” said Kurland, adding that the city would also benefit from more diversity in the upper ranks of EMS.
Local 3621 union head Vincent Variale, who favors a civil-service exam-based promotion system for EMS, said Boyd’s promotion was an honor she deserved.
“All congratulations to Capt. Boyd. This was earned by hard work,” he said.
Boyd’s promotion — the first time in more than 150 years the FDNY will have an African-American woman as a deputy chief — is eagerly anticipated by other women in the agency.
She is the highest-ranking black woman in the entire department, said Regina Wilson, an FDNY firefighter and head of the Vulcan Society, a fraternal organization of African-American fire department employees.
“It’s a proud moment for the department to have a woman of color reach such a rank and we hope there will be many more to follow,” the Brooklyn firefighter said.
Other FDNY trailblazers include Brenda Berkman, who was in the first group of women firefighters to join the department in 1982, along with Ella McNair and Rochelle (Rocky) Jones.
Jones, now retired, became the first woman captain on the firefighting side in 1999 and in 2003 became a battalion chief — the highest rank any woman has held in the FDNY. Berkman was appointed captain in 2002 and retired at that rank in 2006.
In 2002, McNair, who also retired in 2006, became the first black woman firefighter promoted to lieutenant.
Twelve years later, the department’s firefighting side welcomed its second African-American woman officer when firefighter Tracy Lewis became a lieutenant in 2014.