Tampa Bay is rich in history. The Cuban sandwich was invented in Ybor. Ray Charles got his start playing clubs in the downtown area formerly known as Central Avenue.
Even in the past few years, Tampa politicians and sports teams have made history with notable “firsts.”
On June 25, 2021, history was made in Tampa once again when Chief Barbara Tripp was sworn in as the first-ever female fire chief for Tampa Fire Rescue. For little girls everywhere, seeing women do things they haven’t done before—especially as hometown heroes—matters.
And knowing that she is also one of the most respected, most deserving, and most fun mother and Nanas there is makes it mean that much more.
TBPM: Can you share a little bit about your background and how you became involved with the fire department?
Barbara Tripp: I grew up in East Tampa with my mother, father, sister and brother. We were considered a poor or low-income family.
Nonetheless, I graduated from high school, and I wanted to study for a career where I could make the most money. I got accepted to USF with the goal to major in computer engineering. I felt like that was where the money was, and I loved math.
Considering the way I grew up, I thought money would solve all of my problems. I went for two years, and finally took a math course under the computer engineering studies and realized that one problem consisted of four pages of work.
At that point, I needed a change. Well, life happened and made that change for me when I became pregnant with my son at the age of 20. Friends recommended that I look for a job within the fire department. I dismissed it and went into the military instead.
When I returned home, a neighbor of mine urged that I go into the fire service. I told them “No way, I’m not putting out fires! It’s already hot enough in Tampa to begin with!”
Eventually, I learned about the benefits and the hours involved, and I became curious.
When I called Chief Day for a job, he asked an important question on the phone that I couldn’t answer: What do you know about the fire service? I went in the next day to meet him in-person, and he immediately grabbed my hand to shake it.
He shared with me that he often has candidates come in to see him that are not physically capable of the job. After that hand shake, he signed me up, and I became a firefighter for Hillsborough County.
I eventually switched over to Tampa Fire Department for benefits that were better for the future of my family.
TBPM: What does it mean to you to be not only the first female fire chief, but also the first woman of color to lead the Tampa Fire Department?
Barbara Tripp: It really didn’t hit me when Mayor Castor swore me in on June 25, 2021.
At first I thought, ‘I’m just doing my job, this is just another promotion.’
Then, a few days later, I was at the airport getting ready to fly out when my son looked at me and said: “Mom, I am so proud of you.” That’s when it hit me.
I just made history as a female and as a woman of color. However, I don’t want to be remembered as a Black female Fire Chief.
I want my legacy to be great leadership by someone who was a woman, and just happened to be a person of color. Because being a woman doesn’t stop me from doing my job.
Being an Afro-American doesn’t stop me from doing my job. Yeah, we know she’s Black, but was she a good leader? I really believe that being a strong leader comes first, and those other identifying characteristics really just enhance the honor.
We live in a time when there is a lot of buzz around DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion), and I’d like to share that diversity is so much more than gender or race. Diversity can be the level of training in our line of work.
You are good at this, and I am not. Train me.
I really think we need to shift the way we think about these very ideals. I want more people to understand that diversity in a crew for fire service could be that a team member offers something that the others do not that will make our outcomes better in whatever situation we are in.
When it comes to our community, I especially want a team to include the people that will meet the needs of those we serve.
TBPM: Given your accomplishments, what is your advice to other women and even children who don’t see themselves in roles they have interests in?
Barbara Tripp: Challenge yourselves. If you are a female, and you’ve never seen another female in a job or leadership position that you believe you would be great at, go for it anyway. I like to describe my own life as a maze or an obstacle course.
If at any time I’ve felt like I’ve hit a dead end, it’s not that at all! I just back up and go another way.
When the Mayor approached me to do this job, I could have easily said no. There is no training for this level of leadership or this particular job.
I really didn’t know what to expect, but I knew I could try. If the average person says it cannot be done, I want to know where that is written! Show me. And if you can’t, then I’m going to try and give it my best.
And to this day, I’ve faced many challenges. But I keep going.
And along the same lines, for children that don’t see themselves in leadership today but have big dreams for their lives, I want them to know what I tell my grandchildren: dreams do come true, and miracles happen.
It all begins with believing in yourself.
TBPM: What is one thing you are most proud of as a mother? A grandmother? A leader?
Barbara Tripp: I am most proud of my three kids: I have two daughters and one son. I raised them to give back to help kids that didn’t have as much as they did, like the kid who I was in my childhood.
From those early days to today, they still make me so proud. I am also proud of my grands, and I hope I inspire them.
Finally, I’m proud to overcome so many barriers to lead a 127-year department that is fueled by hard work and determination.
Photo provided by Tampa Fire Rescue | Originally published in the October 2022 issue of Tampa Bay Parenting Magazine.