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'I'm humbled by it': IFD names first black female Battalion Chief

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Posted at 5:01 AM, Feb 28, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-28 06:36:29-05

INDIANAPOLIS — Paving the way for women in a male-dominated field, Aleatha Henderson continues to break the brass ceiling at the Indianapolis Fire Department.

Survive Alive has been a resource in the Indianapolis community for nearly three decades, helping to educate families on how to stay safe before and during a fire.

For the last 20 years it’s been run by Aleatha Henderson, who was just appointed as IFD’s first black Battalion Chief.

“It's an achievement that a lot of firefighters work very hard to achieve,” Henderson said.

Battalion Chief is a new title for Henderson.

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Earlier this year Aleatha Henderson was appointed Battalion Chief by the Indianapolis Fire Department. She's the first black female to achieve this rank in IFD history.

“It’s very hard to get used to but it's one that I'm very proud of,” Henderson said.

She’s been with IFD for 28 years.

“I didn't want to be a firefighter,” Henderson said. “I often say it’s the best mistake that I ever made.”

She wanted to be a paramedic, so she applied for the fire department, she didn’t realize that she’d always be a firefighter first.

“I was like ‘oh my goodness what have I gotten myself into?’ but I've been the type of person that I've never backed down from a challenge and so I said, ‘well you know what I'll just see where this goes’,” Henderson said.

After 28 years serving the Indianapolis community you could say it went pretty well.

“The fact is women are very capable of being great firefighters not just a firefighter but being great firefighters. There are many women on our job that do the job very well,” Henderson said.

After eight years she moved to the public education area of fire becoming the director of Survive Alive and several other safety programs.

“A lot of times public education isn't thought of when we look at the fire department. We see the fire trucks going down the street we don't see the public educators driving their cars to and from schools and to and from events,” Henderson said.

One of the many events Henderson hosts every year is the Fire Olympics. The event teaches fire safety to kids in a fun and interactive way.

She explained but educating the community they aren’t just helping Indianapolis residents but also their brother and sister firefighters.

“To get to a scene and the families already outside at the meeting place because that's what they were told to do means that that that firefighter doesn't have to risk their lives to go in to try to find and save someone else's life they can just concentrate on putting the fire out,” Henderson said.

Henderson and her team conduct home visits throughout the year to make sure families having working smoke alarms

Henderson received an award for saving someone’s life during a fire, but she says her 20 years in fire safety education has been much more rewarding.

“When I was in at the firehouse, you know, we pulled out a person and we saved them which was awesome, but I've saved so many more people teaching them what to do,” Henderson said.

"I am so proud of this family. This family is one of our “Saves.”
"I am so proud of this family. This family is one of our “Saves.” Here Collin Wence is receiving recognition for bravery. Two years prior, Collin attended our Firefighters Survive Alive program learned about fire safety and what to do in an emergency. He taught his younger sister and family. Two years later, their apartment building caught fire and Collin very calmly put in action what he had learned and led his family out to safety without suffering any harm," Henderson said.

That hard work and dedication to her community earned Henderson a promotion. Earlier this year she was named Battalion Chief, the first black female to do so in IFD history.

“It's very moving for me just because there aren't very many black females on the fire department and for me to get to this point just says a lot about our department and our commitment to diversity and trying to make sure that our fire department mirrors the community that we serve,” Henderson said.

She said this promotion wouldn’t have been possible without others motivating her and working by her side.

“There are many others who have come along to help pave the way,” Henderson said.

Dei Esther Ellis comes to the front of her mind.

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Dei Esther Ellis served as a mentor for Henderson. She was the first female African American to be promoted to lieutenant and captain.

“This is a minor thing but to me I really do want everyone to know if you have belief in God I feel like everything is possible,” Dei Esther Ellis said in 2002 when we interviewed her after she became the first African American female to be promoted to ranking officer.

“She kind of like took me under her wing and she motivated me. She was the first Merit Lieutenant she was the first African American Captain on the fire department, and she just really inspired me to want to achieve more,” Henderson said.

And nothing possible without her team working by her side every day.

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Henderson poses with the 2023 Public Education team inside Survive Alive headquarters

“The team that it takes to do this job we are so grateful to just be able to do it and so that's enough for us just knowing that our efforts have made a difference in the community,” Henderson said.

Her message to any young women hearing her story now is this:

“If you are willing to take the risk the sky's the limit, you know, and we are capable of so much more than we can even imagine if we just get trust ourselves and give ourselves a chance,” Henderson said.

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Henderson's first department photo from when she joined the service in 1995.

Her final thoughts to us on being appointed Battalion Chief are this:

“I'm humbled by it. It's not about just me. I may have been the one that stepped into the position, but it was a lot of people that have helped encourage me. I've had a ton of awesome bosses and chiefs that have mentored me and it's just I can't…I can't be here without thanking them and their efforts and their dedication to helping me to become the best director of public education,” Henderson said.