JONESBORO — Brenda Nishiyama Willis’ life as a fire chief is a second career of sorts.
She spent 33 years in the fire services before she retired from the Atlanta Fire Department in 2010. She’d been with Atlanta for 30 years and had risen to deputy chief. After she wasn’t picked to be chief of that department, she called it a day and retired.
But do firefighters ever truly get that job out of their blood? Willis didn’t because she came out of retirement a year and a half later to become Riverdale’s fire chief in January 2012.
Now she’s a finalist to become Clayton County’s next fire chief. It’s a position she is pursuing, she wrote on her application, because she wants the “challenge of a larger department.”
Willis is one of two female candidates for the position. The other female candidate is East Point Fire Chief Rosemary Cloud. If either of them is chosen for the job, they would be Clayton County’s first female fire chief.
A look deeper into Willis’ past reveals a candidate who can work on radios if needed. That’s because she was a radio relay repairman for the U.S. Air Force, according to a copy of her resume discovered on the online documents website, docstoc.com.
The resume does not show when Willis served in the military. It only shows her military branch, job title and the fact that she was honorably discharged.
Clayton News Daily filed an open records request with the city of Riverdale for a copy of Willis’ personnel file earlier this week. Officials said they expected to get a copy of the file to a reporter by Friday, but it had not arrived as of press time.
A long career in the fire service
Willis’ career as a firefighter began in 1977 with the LaGrange Fire Department. She worked 56 hours a week and her salary by the time she left in 1980 was $13,000, according to her application.
Her work for LaGrange was the typical job of a firefighter. She fought fires and provided first responder care to the sick and injured.
When she left LaGrange for Atlanta in 1980, it kicked off a long career with the department she would professionally grow up in. She worked her way up the ranks, and gained more and more responsibility within the department.
Eventually, Willis was overseeing the department’s operations as deputy chief.
She managed the field commands, oversaw budgets for divisions within the department and helped develop its policies, goals and objectives, according to her application. She also handled the fire department’s interdepartmental relationships with other areas of the city government.
Her resume shows that as deputy chief, Willis oversaw the department’s operations at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport during her last year with the city.
But a look further into her resume shows her complete rise through the ranks in Atlanta. She arrived from LaGrange and continued to be a firefighter, but she was promoted to become a fire apparatus operator in 1983. In this role, she mainly drove a fire ladder truck, but was also part of the hazardous material unit from 1984 until 1986.
In 1986, she was promoted to fire lieutenant, which gave her oversight of a fire company. She became chief of training a year later and held that position for the next five years. In this role, she coordinated, supervised and managed training for all of the department’s employees.
In 1992, she was made the battalion chief in charge of suppression, which meant she oversaw on-site emergency operations. She stayed in that position for 13 years, until she became deputy chief over operations in 2005.
She advanced as far as being named a finalist for the Atlanta fire chief position by Mayor Kasim Reed in 2010. Ultimately, former Atlanta fire Chief and U.S. Fire Administrator Kelvin Cochran was chosen for that position and Willis went into retirement a month after being named a finalist for the chief’s spot.
When she came to Riverdale last year, she was taking over the reins of a much smaller department that had only 30 employees. She also became the city’s emergency management coordinator, working under the supervision of Riverdale Police Chief Samuel Patterson.
On her application, she listed her responsibilities with Riverdale as including review of “the general operation of the department to determine efficiency, providing direction on major problem areas, strategic planning, (to) develop (and) implement policies and procedures, (and to) provide policy guidance.”
Education and teaching responsibilities
Willis’ education includes an associates degree in fire science from Phenix City, Ala.-based Chattahoochee Valley Community College, where she was an honor graduate, according to her resume. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in fire science administration from Gainesville-based Brenau College School of Professional Studies, where she graduated summa cum laude.
Her resume also shows she completed 15 hours toward a master’s degree in public administration from Georgia State University in 1985, but it does not indicate if she completed that degree.
Willis has been an instructor for several institutions, according to her resume. She’s been a certified state fire instructor for the Georgia State Fire Academy since 1979, an adjunct faculty member teaching hazardous materials courses for DeKalb Technical College since 1985 and an adjunct faculty member for the Emmitsburg, Md.-based National Fire Academy since 1986.
Editor’s note: Clayton News Daily has been profiling the three Clayton County fire chief finalists this week. Articles profiling finalists Landry Merkison and Rosemary Cloud ran in Friday’s edition.