Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Commanding female presence

The first woman to make fire chief in Phila. is not a firefighter.

The highest-ranking woman in the Philadelphia Fire Department has never battled a blaze.

Then again, how many firefighters studied at the London School of Economics or have a photographic memory or saved a runner's life at the Philadelphia Marathon?

Meet Diane Schweizer, first female chief in the history of the department, founded in 1736.

"I never had an interest in being a firefighter," says Schweizer, 39, who joined the department as a paramedic in 1995. "I didn't feel a passion for it."

One month into her tenure as chief of Emergency Medical Services Operations, Schweizer oversees the city's 300-plus paramedics and 45 ambulances.

It's a brain-busting assignment, requiring the technical skills of an air traffic controller and the temperament of a family therapist.

Like other large urban areas, Philadelphia's demand for paramedics far outweighs that for firefighters. Accidents, heart attacks, shootings and stabbings are on the rise; raging infernos are down.

As of last week, EMS had made 206,732 medical runs, compared with fire's 48,592, according to figures supplied by the department. Last year, it was 214,404 to 53,463.

Meanwhile, the EMS Division came under blistering attack in a yearlong performance audit by city controller Alan Butkovitz released Thursday.

The report said that EMS personnel were taking too long to arrive at accident scenes and that the department didn't have enough ambulances. Schweizer says she doesn't have permission to comment on the audit.

"We don't really fight fires anymore," she says. "Even most of the fire engines are going out on medical runs."

Schweizer, an emergency medical technician since she was a high schooler in Whippany, N.J., made an impressive medical run herself at the Philadelphia Marathon last month.

After a marathoner collapsed on Kelly Drive near the Art Museum, Schweizer, on patrol there, was summoned for help by the crowd.

When she got to the fallen runner, a man in his early 40s, "he was blue. Unconscious. Not breathing. No pulse," Schweizer says calmly, as though reciting a grocery list.

She immediately started chest compressions as an onlooker continued mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. When the medic unit arrived a few minutes later, the man was breathing on his own.

Schweizer's first "save" as chief. Sweet.

That's just in the field. Higher up on the, well, ladder, "she can hold her own with the boys, no doubt about it," says Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers. "When issues need to be debated, she's in the debate."

Sometimes the debate includes Deputy Fire Chief Bill Schweizer, 54, her husband of seven years. A 33-year department veteran, he was tagged "Fireboy" at his first firehouse because he wasn't even shaving yet.

"Diane is very even-tempered, analytical," he says. "She doesn't rule with her emotions."

Still, he takes no chances. Although he is her professional superior, he never pulls rank at home. "I'm not stupid," he says and laughs. "She's usually right. I'm secure enough to see it."

By all accounts, it's a storybook marriage. He even buys her clothes because she hates to shop. (She also hates makeup, high heels, sugar and hard alcohol.)

"I'd like to spend all my time with my husband, if I could," she says. "We never argue. We do almost everything together."

Including working in the same building.

By sheer coincidence, chief and deputy chief are both based at Engine 47 in Grays Ferry. He was assigned there in late 2005. About a year later, her unit relocated from Fire Administration Headquarters at Third and Spring Garden Streets.

Even with similar four days on/four days off shifts, the two are so busy on the job they rarely interact.

A homebody at heart, Schweizer femme eschews brews with the boys to retreat to her Burholme twin, where her pride and passion is a landscaped 5,000-gallon fish pond.

Stocked with 64 exotic fish, including 20 koi, it's designated as a national wildlife preserve. She decorates it for all seasons, complete with ornaments and figurines.

"The little pond grew into a big pond - and a big hobby," Schweizer says. "It's like my getaway. I can forget about everything. Some people watch TV or sew. I like to take care of my pond."

Especially the five koi she raised from small fry to 30 inches in length. Named them, too - Redhead. Yellow. Popsicle. "If I ever move, my fish are coming with me," she says.

Two dogs, one cat, and a pair of lovebirds (yes, really) complete the menagerie. No partridges or pear trees.

Along with animals and the outdoors, Schweizer has a thing for numbers. A human speed-dial, she keeps hundreds of digits in her head. She can read something once and commit it to memory.

"Diane can do anything, whether it's writing computer programs, riding Jet Skis, or doing mathematical equations," according to her father, Bill Kuehner, a retired engineer.

Accomplishment runs in the family. Brother Bill, 41, is a physician; sister Karen, 35, a physical therapist; and sister Nancy, 29, an elementary school teacher. Their mother, Marilyn, taught high school physics and math.

"We're kind of a vanilla family," says Dr. Bill, an internist in Allentown. "We don't skydive. We're just kind of plain guys and girls."

Nothing plain about Chief Schweizer's love of water-skiing. She can do it all day long. More than once, she and Nancy have run out of gas and have had to paddle to shore.

Schweizer graduated from the University of Scranton in 1990 with a degree in math. During her junior year, she studied at the London School of Economics. In '92, she earned a master's in emergency medical services from Hahnemann University.

When Schweizer joined the department in '95, there were fewer than a dozen women. Firehouses had no separate facilities. Bathroom stalls had no doors; bathroom doors had no locks. Women used the officers' bathroom.

There are now 113 women among a total of 2,111, according to department figures. Sixty-seven women make up almost 32 percent of the paramedics. Among firefighters, women are only 2.5 percent of the 1,551-person force.

As a woman, Schweizer swears she's never had a bad experience at work.

"You have to be a certain kind of woman to be in this job," she says. "You have to be secure, believe in yourself, and be strong-willed. Whether you realize it or not, you're a minority.

"If people know you're credible, they don't tend to hassle you. I'm strong. I can work. It was never an issue of me not being able to do my job. I've always been treated equally."

By late 2003, however, Schweizer almost left the department to study medicine because "it wasn't challenging enough for me."

That changed when former Commissioner Harold Hairston, her mentor and best man at her wedding, named her the department's public information officer.

Again, she was the first woman in the post. This time, there was real tension, she says.

"People were waiting for me to fail. Nobody did anything specific, but they were watching my every move."

She didn't fail, of course. For Schweizer, failure is not an option. In fact, the last example she could remember was her New Jersey driver's test when she was 17.

"No matter what the obstacle, I don't give up," she says. "If I don't do it the first time, I'll keep doing it until it's done. There's nothing I won't try or do."

Hail to the chief, gentlemen.