Va. fire-EMS department hires first female chief in nearly 250-year history

Chief Tina R. Watkins will lead the Petersburg Department of Fire, Rescue, and Emergency Services after a number of interim leaders over the years


Sean Jones
The Progress-Index

PETERSBURG, Va. — The Petersburg Department of Fire, Rescue, and Emergency Services has hired the first female fire chief in its nearly 250-year history. Chief Tina R. Watkins is taking over on a permanent basis after a number of years where interim leaders have directed Petersburg's fire department.

Watkins began her career as a firefighter. For the past 11 years, she has been a battalion chief for Richmond Fire and Emergency Services, where she supervised five stations and six fire companies.

Tina R. Watkins' first day as chief is Jan. 31. For the past 11 years, she has been a battalion chief for Richmond Fire and Emergency Services.
Tina R. Watkins' first day as chief is Jan. 31. For the past 11 years, she has been a battalion chief for Richmond Fire and Emergency Services. (Photo/Tribune News Service)

She earned a Master's degree in Leadership with an emphasis in Emergency Management and Executive Fire Leadership and a Bachelor of Science degree in Public Safety and Business Administration. She holds professional certifications through FEMA, the National Fire Academy, and the Virginia State Fire Program.

"Ms. Watkins has a proven track record serving in leadership roles with Richmond Fire and Emergency Services since 1988," said City Manager Stuart Turille. "She rose to the top as the best-qualified candidate for the position of Fire Chief in Petersburg."

She has a number of professional development certifications in areas like fire prevention hazardous materials, national fire services staff and command, emergency planning and effective communications, among others. She also did fire investigations training and fire public information services.

"Not only does Ms. Watkins have extensive experience in fire administration and field operations, she is a seasoned professional in budget management, enforcement of regulations, policies and procedures development needed to effective lead Petersburg Fire- Rescue with over 75 members and a $4 million dollar budget," said Deputy City Manager Tangela Innis.

Watkins was chosen following an "extensive search" according to the city. She was selected from a pool of 13 candidates and her starting salary will be $110,000. Her first day of work begins on Jan. 31.

"I am committed to providing unparalleled leadership and customer service to the citizens of Petersburg," said Tina Watkins in a press release. "Developing fire safety community programs and supporting on-going professional development and training for all firefighters and rescue personnel is my goal. I will work to secure new fire equipment needed to better protect the city."

Petersburg's last full-time fire chief was Dennis Ruben who left in 2018 after only a year at the helm. He was preceded by, and replaced with interim options. Kenneth Miller later presided over Fire and Rescue as the Director of Public Safety after his elevation from Chief of Police. A former Newport News Fire Chief, Scott Liebold, was appointed as another interim leader after Miller's retirement.

Watkins' permanent hire is being applauded by a former Petersburg Fire Marshal who says she has the strength to bring accountability to a department that has been lacking in leadership for a number of years.

Marlow Jones left the city in 2018 to work as a Deputy Fire Marshal for the state of Virginia. He has also remained a resident of the city and run for city council. He first met Watkins when he was just a recruit in the early 2000s, taking part in training led by Watkins in Richmond.

"When I met her she was a dress right dress lady then. She was serious. Everything she said, she didn't play." Jones said. "She commands discipline and accountability. I don't think you can pull the wool over her eyes either because she's been around."

The department hasn't been without its challenges. Fire Station 4 was abruptly closed in 2020. Firefighters were given no explanation for the closure but told that they were expected to clear everything from the building - personal belongings, furniture, hardware - over the weekend. Significant mold damage and projected COVID-19 revenue shortfalls were later cited as reasons for the closure, but fire advocates said the situation was poorly communicated to staff. The station has since reopened after renovations.

Just this month, a local resident called Fire and Rescue asking if there were any smoke detectors for their elderly neighbor. The department told that resident that it didn't have any, and had been out of smoke detectors since the beginning of the pandemic. Firefighters did eventually bring smoke detectors to that house, although they had to buy the detectors themselves, according to the resident. New detectors have since arrived in the city with more on order.

"When there's a lack of leadership, then there's a lack of accountability on the other end," Jones said.

Jones also applauded Watkins' background leading firefighters in a larger city.

"Being chief in Richmond is almost like being one in New York, it's a big city with big fires, high-rises, things like that," Jones said. "She knows the importance of inspections, the importance of investigations and the importance of firefighter morale."

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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