At 4-foot-10 and 99 pounds when she entered the Philadelphia Fire Academy in 2003, Lisa Forrest faced scrutiny from some male cadets and instructors who doubted her ability.
“But they didn’t know I came from a strong family and a strong line of women,” she said.
Determined to succeed, Forrest came in early every day and stayed late every night to figure out the best technique to lift the heavy equipment required of her in order to become a firefighter.
“Men rely on strength, but women, we rely on technique,” she said.
With a week to go in the academy, Forrest was meeting all requirements when she was tapped on the shoulder during training and asked to go to a room full of male instructors.
There, as she stood in parade rest position with her hands behind her back — something she learned during her time in the military — she was told an instructor wrote to the fire commissioner to say he didn’t think the department would be safe having a firefighter her size.
Forrest stood in silence until she was asked if she had anything to say.
“I had more than enough to say, and that’s when Lisa came out," Forrest said. “I told them, ‘I come in here every day and I do everything. Maybe I don’t get it on the first try, but I get it and I work hard.'”
The final decision lay with the commissioner, the men told Forrest. She never heard another word about it.
A week later, Forrest graduated from the academy, and in 2013, she became the first Black woman to be promoted to captain in the department’s history.
On Tuesday, Forrest will make history again when she becomes the first Black woman to be promoted to fire battalion chief in Philadelphia. Of the department’s 70 or so fire battalion chiefs, only three, including Forrest, are women. Crystal Yates, a Black woman, is assistant deputy commissioner for EMS, but Forrest will be the highest-ranking Black woman on the firefighting side.
“The worst thing they could have done was let me out of the academy, because that’s the only place they could have stopped me,” she said. “I am determined to keep going because I realize this is bigger than me.”
Forrest, 39, grew up in Mount Airy and attended Penn State to study nursing, but left after a year to join the Army. Six months into her service, Forrest was sidelined by an injury and honorably discharged.
She came back to Philadelphia and took the fire department test a month after 9/11.
“It was remarkable how the firefighters were of service to people during 9/11,” she said. “I wanted to be of service, too, and the fire department gave me that opportunity.”
But it would be two more years before Forrest got called up to the academy. During that time, she worked with her uncle at a church print shop and lived with her parents.
One day while she was out, Willie Williams — a fire captain and member of Club Valiants, the city’s association of Black firefighters — knocked at her door. He told her mother the fire department had been trying to reach Forrest because she was to report to enroll in the academy that coming Monday.
It’s unclear to Forrest, who lived in the same house her entire life, why the department hadn’t been able to reach her. . She later found out that Club Valiants had requested — and received permission from the city — to knock on the door of every Black recruit who had not responded to notifications from the department.
“I’m so glad they knocked on my door, and that’s why I’m so involved in the organization right now,” said Forrest, who’s the first woman to be president of the club in its 58-year history. “If there was no Club Valiants, there would be no Lisa Forrest in the fire department.”
Forrest’s academy class — Class 178 — made history by graduating more women than any other previous class, she said. Out of about 94 recruits, 10 were women, including Forrest; Joyce Craig, the first female Philadelphia firefighter to die in the line of duty; Donna Garrett, the first woman to be assigned to Rescue 1; and Linda Long, who became the department’s first woman fire battalion chief in 2017.
Long said the women of Class 178 "helped each other get through the tough days.”
“We learned and taught each other how to use our strengths as women to do some physical tasks," she said.
Years later, when Long and Forrest taught together at the academy, they would come in early to give pointers they’d learned to the newest group of female recruits, Long said.
“[Forrest] is one of the hardest-working women I know and ‘quit’ is not in her vocabulary,” Long said. “I am very happy to see her get promoted after all her hard work.”
A battalion chief enforces rules and regulations within the battalion; responds to fires and hazardous incidents and assumes command of all department resources on-scene; and may supervise up to 12 department apparatus and 50 firefighters and medics at a time.
“I am always proud of our Philadelphia Fire Department members who earn promotions, and make no mistake, Battalion Chief Forrest has earned this promotion through her hard work and dedication, both on- and off-duty," fire Commissioner Adam Thiel said in a statement. "It is truly an honor to be part of this historic moment and I know that Lisa’s positive example will continue inspiring women to join the PFD and advance into every available rank.”
Forrest’s first assignment was to Engine 51 in Olney. She’d planned to stay only five years because she wanted to go back to school for nursing, but she fell in love with the job. Instead of leaving at the five-year mark, Forrest was promoted to lieutenant. In 2013, she became the first Black woman promoted to captain in the department’s history.
The following year, Forrest’s friend and academy classmate, Craig, died when she became trapped in a burning West Oak Lane house. She was 37.
Forrest, who sits on the department’s leadership council, has been a strong advocate for changes like updated equipment in the wake of Craig’s death.
“I owe it to her family to make sure something like that doesn’t happen again,” she said. “Joyce’s death cannot be in vain.”
Throughout her career, Forrest has been stationed in North Philly, Mantua, Mount Airy, and West Philly. She has also worked in recruitment and taught at the department’s Fire/EMS Academy at Randolph Technical High School.
At home, Forrest is the proud mom of Ariel, 12, and son Tyson, 1. She and her partner, Ty, live in Northeast Philly and have a blended family that also includes his two adult children, one of whom wants to become a firefighter.
Forrest doesn’t know where her first assignment as battalion chief will be yet, but she looks forward to finding out Tuesday. She also looks forward to the day when the next Black woman is promoted to battalion chief.
“My real joy will come when the second one comes, that shows that it did not stop and start with me,” Forrest said. “I don’t want to be the only one. I’m trying to get a whole bunch of people on this train. C’mon, let’s go. This train is moving!”