Brittney Baker, St. Paul’s first African-American woman firefighter to reach rank of captain, ‘making sure the door never closes again’

St. Paul Fire Capt. Brittney Baker is most comfortable when she’s teaching students who are becoming EMTs, and when out in the community to talk about fire prevention and health. She’s never wanted to be in the limelight and it hasn’t been easy, but she sees the greater good in telling her story.

Baker recently made history as the first African-American woman in the St. Paul Fire Department to reach the rank of captain, and the St. Paul City Council honored her Wednesday.

People have been approaching Baker, telling her she’s made them realize they could also be firefighters.

A girl she didn’t know came up to Baker at a coffee shop asking, “Are you the captain?” Baker replied, “I’m a captain.” The girl told Baker she had seen her story online and said, “Oh my gosh, congratulations!”

Baker also has seen comments people have left on news stories along the lines of, “Who cares? She’s just a diversity, equity and inclusion hire.” Friends tell her not to let it bother her, but she wonders how she can when people aren’t considering she earned the promotion because of her experience, leadership skills and civil service testing.

“It’s a lot of weight,” she said this week. “There’s a lot of positivity that comes with it and there’s a lot of negativity that we still have to deal with. I just want to do the job, and work hard because I’ve always worked hard.”

From student to teacher

Baker grew up in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood and graduated from Central High School in 2006. She worked at a temp agency, “finding other people jobs,” and was attending Century College. She wanted to become a pediatric oncology nurse.

Baker’s sister, Naajidah, died at age 3 from acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Baker was 8 and the kindness of the medical staff who cared for Naajidah stuck with her.

“Taking care of people, especially kids — they’re the most innocent thing that we have,” she said of what drives her. “Not just trying to fix their illness, but care for them as a whole. Understanding that you’re not just treating the illness, you have to treat the person, too.”

When a friend told Baker about the St. Paul Fire Department’s EMS Academy, she applied in 2012 and was accepted. In its current form, the academy is a tuition-free emergency medical technician certification program for St. Paul or Ramsey County residents. “It’s designed to have the department better reflect our community,” said firefighter/paramedic Kayla Sanchez, one of the lead instructors with Baker.

About three weeks into the academy, Baker’s father was shot. He survived, and seeing the work of EMTs and paramedics also confirmed to her that “this is where I belonged.”

She hadn’t considered becoming a firefighter before the EMS Academy.

“I saw men that looked like me, I didn’t see any women that looked like me,” Baker said. “To be truthful, I didn’t see a whole lot of women to begin with.” But during her first ride-along with a fire crew when she was in the EMS Academy, she was paired with three women firefighters and that started opening her eyes.

Two women hug
Newly promoted St. Paul Fire Captain Brittney Baker gets a hug from her mom, Shantell Hutchinson, after a presentation recognizing her promotion in the St. Paul City Council Chambers on Wednesday, March 27, 2024. Capt. Baker is the first African-American woman to earn the rank of captain with the St. Paul Fire Department. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

After graduating from the EMS Academy, Baker was hired in 2012 as an EMT for the fire department’s Basic Life Support (BLS) division, which responds to less serious medical emergencies than the fire department’s paramedics, among other duties. The St. Paul Fire Department handles all emergency medical calls in the city.

The BLS division was part-time work at that point (its EMTs are now full-time employees), and along the way Baker worked for Regions Hospital EMS, Mercy Hospital’s emergency room, radiology at Regions Hospital and hyperbaric oxygen therapy at Abbott Northwestern Hospital. She still teaches EMT, medic and fire medic courses at Century College.

Baker became a paramedic in 2015 and was accepted to the St. Paul Fire Department academy in 2018, becoming a firefighter/paramedic that year.

She continued taking apprenticeship courses and written exams that are required before a St. Paul firefighter can seek a promotion, and she earned the rank of fire equipment operator.

After six months of studying and preparation, she took the test to become a captain.

There’s a written portion and practical simulations, during which potential captains are evaluated on being in charge of fire scenes. At the St. Paul Fire Department, a captain is assigned to each fire rig to supervise its staff on each shift.

Chief Butch Inks called Baker in February to tell her he was promoting her to captain. She and three other people took on the new rank just over a month ago.

Sixteen graduates of St. Paul’s EMS Academy, which started in 2009, have gone on to become St. Paul firefighters. Baker is the first graduate of the academy to reach the rank of captain in the St. Paul department.

‘Serves selflessly’

Baker will be assigned again to a fire station in May, but the department’s kept her busy with teaching lately. She doesn’t spend much time at her desk at the fire department’s headquarters, which is decorated with thank-you cards from children, photos and more.

There’s also a large chess piece — the queen — she keeps on her desk. It was a gift from Sanchez, who graduated the EMS Academy a year after Baker, worked with her in the BLS division and became a firefighter alongside Baker.

Sanchez said she saw a quote from Karim Ellis: “A king may be the most important piece on the chess board, however, the queen is the most powerful as she performs more moves than any other token.”

“I wanted to give her a chess piece to remind her that she is the most valuable piece on the board,” Sanchez said. “We support each other.”

Also on her desk is a photograph of Baker with three other St. Paul Fire Department employees who are women and EMS Academy graduates, and who were among a group of six women who went to Kenya in November to teach EMS and fire-suppression courses to Kenyan firefighters for two weeks.

Baker began teaching at the fire department’s EMS Academy in 2013, the year after she graduated. She’s now the EMS Academy’s coordinator and one of three lead instructors.

Baker has three children of her own, though “we have always said, our students aren’t students, they become our kids when they are in the class,” Sanchez wrote previously about Baker. “We do whatever it takes to make sure our students overcome any barrier in front of them to be successful. Brittney takes this motto into every part of her life. She serves selflessly and does whatever it takes to ensure the success of others.”

This is the inaugural year for St. Paul Public Schools to have an EMS class; students who pass a national exam will be certified as EMTs and they earn nine college credits in the process.

Baker’s getting ready for the next EMS Academy, which will be for 18- to 24-year-olds. Applications will open in April.

Baker is also a student herself. She’s working on a degree in emergency management/homeland security.

She hopes to use what she’s learning to help sex-trafficking victims because studies have found a high percentage received medical care while being trafficked. Baker said she wants to work on training for EMTs, “so we can try to spot some of that.”

Brittney Baker Day

A woman stands at a lectern with a group of people behind her
Surrounded by family, friends, and colleagues, newly promoted St. Paul Fire Captain Brittney Baker addresses the St. Paul City Council in chambers at City Hall on Wednesday, March 27, 2024. Capt. Baker is the first African-American woman to earn the rank of captain with the St. Paul Fire Department. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

During Wednesday’s city council meeting, Baker’s oldest child, 15-year-old Naaziah, read a portion of the council resolution recognizing Baker, including a part that said: “She is passionate about ‘Not just opening the door, but making sure the door never closes again,’ through teaching and instruction.”

City council member Cheniqua Johnson continued reading from the resolution: “During Women’s History Month, we acknowledge trailblazers and pioneers such as Brittney Baker.”

“The historic all-woman, majority women of color St. Paul City Council congratulates Capt. Brittney Baker as she makes local history as the first Black woman captain in the St. Paul Fire Department,” Johnson concluded, and announced it was Brittney Baker Day in the city. Firefighters, Baker’s family and friends, and community members erupted in applause.

Chief Inks suggested to council members that if they plan a meeting with Baker and it’s in public, “I encourage you to make it longer than the allotted time.” He said when he’s out and about, most people want to say “hi” or ask him questions, “except when I’m with Brittney. They all want to talk to Brittney because she’s so well-connected in the community and so devoted to giving back.”

First women joined SPFD 30-plus years ago

The first women became St. Paul firefighters in 1992 and Sue Jacobson made history in 2005 when she became deputy chief. She’s now retired and Deputy Chief Stacy Hohertz is currently the highest-ranked woman in the department. Five women hold the title of captain or higher, according to Hohertz.

“Brittney’s a natural leader,” Hohertz said. “She is committed to making the community a safe place for everyone.”

The first African-American woman to be a firefighter in the St. Paul department’s history was Toni Terry, who retired as a fire equipment operator. Baker was the second African-American woman firefighter in St. Paul. She’s now president of Firefighters United, the St. Paul chapter of the International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters.

There are currently 30 women firefighters, of which five are people of color, and eight women in the BLS division, of which four are people of color, according to Hohertz.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *