Shirley Anne Smith has always had a desire to give back, especially when it comes to supporting those in uniform.
Smith, who graduated from Georgia State University in 2008 with bachelor’s degrees in journalism and sociology, is the founding executive director of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Foundation. Before joining the foundation in 2016, she worked at the Girls Scouts of Greater Atlanta and LaAmistad Inc., a nonprofit serving Latinos in Atlanta.
Smith took a break from her busy schedule to talk about her role with the Atlanta Fire Rescue Foundation, her volunteer work and why she loves her alma mater.
What is your typical day like at the Atlanta Fire Rescue Foundation?
We are the pulse gauge for the firefighters. The two biggest concerns for our foundation is prioritizing the mental and physical wellness of our firefighters. My first call today was to talk to the doctors associated with our mental health support to ensure our firefighters are getting the help they need. The mental health piece sometimes lacks as far as resources. We always say our firefighters are here for us and we need to be here for them, too. That’s what my job looks like every single day. It’s a matter of learning the needs of the firefighters and working with the community to provide those needs.
We have 36 fire stations in the city of Atlanta. We go from Bankhead to Buckhead. We try to cover every square mile of the city of Atlanta, including the airport because we have fire rescue stations at the airport.
We often hand deliver meals to our firefighters to help keep their spirits up. Since March of 2019, we’ve delivered over 6,000 meals. We deliver the meals as often as we can.
How do you deal with tough days on the job?
While rare, I have experienced many tough days on the job. Our social, economic and political landscape has been turned on its head in the last year. What helps me power through is my excitement to be a “first responder.” No, I am not a firefighter but in my own way, I get to be the first to respond to our firefighters.
When I have a tough day, I remind myself that our firefighters need me to stay strong so that they can go out and save lives. They need all of us. I also have to remind myself of how incredibly fortunate I am to be in my role. I get to make a living by helping other people.
How did you end up in this job?
I would also say that this very much fulfills a dream deferred. While I was in high school, my career dreams consisted of becoming an officer in the United States Army, retiring, and then joining the Peace Corps.
I wanted to follow my uncle and cousin who have proudly served this country. I pursued four years of high school ROTC, and 2 years of college ROTC at Georgia State University, and while my life took a small detour, this is the most perfect way to serve the men and women in uniform. Firefighters are the ultimate hometown heroes and I am incredibly proud of serving them.
How has the pandemic affected your role?
COVID-19 created an environment of isolation for our firefighters. Firefighters are used to being in the community they serve and participating in community events like parades. They are used to being a part of the Atlanta Pride parade or going to homes and doing smoke alarm installations or going out to events and being a part of the community.
But with COVID, they couldn’t do that anymore because it presents a risk to the community and to our firefighters so immediately we saw the isolation of our firefighters from the community that they serve.
For firefighters it was a unique environment, but what I will say is their service to the community is unwavering. In the midst of COVID, emergencies were still happening, medical calls were still happening. They have made such a sacrifice and have given their all. This experience has made me so much more appreciative of all of our first responders.
What challenges have you faced as a female Latina in a male dominated industry?
I previously worked for the Girl Scouts of Greater Atlanta. And in the Girl Scouts, courage and confidence are some of our most valued traits.
I work in an industry that is white male-dominated and I’m a woman executive who is asked to support the fire industry, but I’m not a firefighter. I’m a civilian from their perspective. So it’s key to establish trust. I always treat others the way I want to be treated. I’ve had some of the best professional and personal relationships from following this rule. It all starts with trust and having the courage and confidence to push forward. The way I think is that if there has to be one, why not me?
How did your Georgia State experience prepare you for your current position?
I pursued journalism and got a dual degree with sociology and I will tell you both of those degrees intersect with the job I do today.
My job requires me to be the spokesperson for the foundation and to be the thought leader of the foundation. My sociology background is always in the forefront of my mind when we talk about how to take care of others. The job of our foundation is to take care of firefighters and their job is to take care of the community. I love being in the city of Atlanta and being around Georgia State every day.
Georgia State created an outlet for me to be myself and find others who look just like me and find young Latina students who were going through the same educational journey. For a lot of people in our community, we represent the first-generation of college students. My freshman year I joined a Latina sorority and Georgia State served as a catalyst for who I am today.