When it came time for Recruit #38 in the 78th Recruit Class to demonstrate her ability to put up a 150-pound, 24-foot wooden ladder against the side of the training tower at headquarters, a small crowd gathered on the grinder. Everyone was wondering whether or not this petite-framed firefighter trainee weighing just 105 pounds could do it. So when she threw it up against the tower without a struggle, more than a few were surprised.
“At first I was nervous,” says Battalion Chief Veronie Steele-Small. “The physical part was never my concern. It was just that everyone was watching me. After that, I wondered why more women are not in this job.”
After 25 years as a firefighter for the Los Angeles County Fire Department, Steele-Small has joined its management ranks with her recent promotion to Battalion Chief. She is the first female African-American Battalion Chief in the Department’s history, but this was not the only “first” for her. In 2000, when promoted to the rank of Fire Captain, she also became the first African-American woman to achieve that position within the Department.
What is “first” is her new assignment on the C shift in Battalion 16’s headquarters at Fire Station 154. As she settles into her new duties, Steele-Small is still disappointed that more women have not embraced the fire service as a career. While serving as a chief officer will certainly take her in new directions, she remembers those who encouraged her to join the profession and take those first steps.
“Back then, I had a challenge to prove to myself that I could do this job. Everyone looked at me and thought, ‘She’s too little to do the job and won’t want to have her fingernails broken,’ but I have always been athletic and like working outside,” says Steele-Small. “I was planning to become a physical therapist, but paramedicine was interesting to me. When I realized that I couldn’t just join a fire department and become a paramedic, I challenged myself in all aspects of firefighting.”
In high school and college, Steele-Small ran track and set school records, and became an amateur athlete with the Junior Olympics. A gymnast as well, she developed into a strong young woman with only 13 percent body fat. Disciplined and trained, Steele-Small’s sheer drive and determination helped springboard her career into the fire service.
Steele-Small has served the public from nine fire stations, including 20 years as a paramedic, and retains numerous certifications. She has worked in virtually every area of operations, including Urban Search and Rescue, Emergency Medical Services, Hazardous Materials, and wildland firefighting. In 1997, she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Business and Management from California State University, Redlands.
When she joined the Department in 1988, she became the seventh woman to be hired, following in the boot steps of Cindy Barbee Fralick, the first woman hired, and five others.“I always remember the six women who came before me, including Debbie Lawrence, who was the first woman in our organization to be promoted to battalion chief,” she recalls. “Now, we have more women on the job, and I’m one of two female battalion chiefs. Even with this progress, it’s still in a non-traditional job for women.”
For years, Steele-Small has helped the Department to recruit both women and men to the job, supervising a team of over 20 firefighters of all ranks to assist. She fondly remembers meeting Rosemary Roberts McCloud, a career firefighter promoted to the rank of Fire Chief of the East Point, Georgia Fire Department and the first African-American female fire chief in America. “That moment was so inspirational to me. It made me realize that I made it,” she says. “I know that I am a role model for women and women of color, and I plan to do even more to inspire other women of all backgrounds to consider this career.”