“I just can never turn the firefighter off. You can never turn off that desire and willingness to help somebody in a bad spot, whether you’re working in uniform or not at work.”
Recalling his childhood in Toledo, Brian Byrd remembers his mother going out of her way for him to pass by the fire station as they walked together to the grocery store, and how inspired he was by their dedication to serving their community. Since five years old, he had always wanted to be a firefighter. Now, Byrd is the Chief of the Toledo Fire and Rescue Department.
He was especially inspired by the few African American firefighters who showed him that he, too, could enter this field.
“When I was at that age, there weren’t a lot of firefighters that looked like me—there weren’t very many African American firefighters at all,” he said. “Back then, I didn’t even know that would be a reality.”
The St. Johns High School alumnus first attended Penn State University, then transferred to the University of Toledo, where he decided to train for the test and started his work with the Toledo Fire and Rescue Department.
Once on the job, Byrd was able to experience the significance and sacrifice in making a difference in someone’s life, the very reason he started his career—not because of the salary or benefits, he explained.
“[The firefighter life is] always there, sometimes it’s there in the middle of the night when you’re having bad dreams about the things you see,” Byrd said, or “if we saw or came upon a car accident, even with [my] family in the car, I’m pulling over to check on people.”
While climbing the ranks of the Toledo Fire and Rescue Department—firefighter, Lieutenant, Captain, Battalion Chief, Deputy Chief, Assistant Chief and then the Chief—Byrd’s priority remained the safety of Toledoans. When he realized that most of the fire department’s runs shifted from fire to Emergency Medical Services, he even became a paramedic to better serve his community.
Byrd was promoted to Deputy Chief through a competitive process, but he chose to return to his position as Battalion Chief because he wanted to continue his work on the streets, in closer contact with the people he serves.
Eventually, Byrd was chosen to be the fire chief, a decision he says he never anticipated.
“[I] never saw that coming, never planned on it; it was never anything I aspired to,” Byrd said.
Now, as he heads the fire department, this also means ensuring that his firefighters have the resources they need.
“As an administrator [I am] trying to do everything I can to support what [my firefighters] are doing on the streets so that they can help the people that we have a responsibility to help and to keep our firefighters safe,” he explained.
COVID-19 has added to the challenges faced by Chief Byrd and the Toledo Fire and Rescue Department, a group which he refers to as “the epitome of essential workers.” To adapt, the Fire Department is training to respond to calls with the same speed and efficiency as before, but now with consideration of the unknowns and fluidity of COVID-19, maximizing safety for their community members and the firefighters themselves.
Byrd also volunteers as the national chairperson for the National African American Male Wellness Initiative to combat health disparities in his community. Through his work, he has helped to expand the initiative to 14 cities.
“There’s a huge unmet need in the community when it comes to health services, health care and access to health care,” he said.
And that unmet need is coupled with disparities that exist in our communities, something Byrd strives to bring attention to.
“As an African American male [who] has been a firefighter for this long, one of the things that I noticed are health disparities in our community,” he said. “African Americans suffer, especially African American men.”
In light of recent unrest regarding social inequities and injustices, Byrd also reflected on the challenges he experiences as both an African American man and as a civil servant.
“I was a Black man before I became a firefighter and I will be a Black man after I’m a firefighter. And there are many times where my life is completely different, when I’m in uniform and when I’m out of uniform. When I’m in uniform, you know, you’re in a community and people acknowledge you, they support you, they respect you. And then there’s many instances when not in a uniform when I’m in a department store with one of my sons where we get followed by security. So the balance is understanding that these disparities exist, but [using] my position to try to help be a change when it comes to the existence of those disparities,” he said.
Although in a few years Chief Byrd will retire from his 33-year career, he still hopes that the Toledo Fire and Rescue Department will continue to be an example for progress and exemplary service. Most of all, Chief Byrd hopes his success can be an inspiration to others like him.
“I also try to represent myself […] in a way that makes those people who look like me feel that it’s an opportunity for them, just like those guys that I saw when I was a little kid,” he said.