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When she stands near Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the inauguration Wednesday, Andrea M. Hall will have some inkling of what the incoming vice president will be feeling. Being a “first” — and a first Black woman at that — brings immeasurable pressure and responsibility.
In 1993, when Hall joined the City of Albany Fire Department in Georgia, she was the first Black woman to get hired and then assigned to a station. Then, in 1999, when she transferred to Fulton County Fire Rescue, less than 1 percent of the people in a department that numbered about 500 were women. In 2004, when she was promoted to fire captain — a rank she has held for more than 16 years — she was the first Black woman to serve in that role in the department’s history.
“Being the first, there’s a lot of pageantry around it when it’s first announced,” Hall told The 19th. “However, you are becoming the torch-bearer for everybody that’s coming behind you. You become the example — for good or bad. Being the first, you know that a lot is riding on your ability to be successful in that role.”
Hall has done that, rising up to take the role of president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 3920 in 2018. Her union was the first to endorse Joe Biden for president at his first campaign stop in Pittsburgh in 2019. So when she got the call from members of Biden’s inauguration team that they wanted someone to represent firefighters at the ceremony, Hall “gave a resounding ‘yes.’”
Hall and the others selected to be part of the ceremony, including the first-ever national youth poet laureate, were picked to “represent one clear picture of the grand diversity of our great nation,” said Tony Allen, the CEO of the Presidential Inauguration Committee.
Since she got the call, Hall’s been preparing non-stop, putting a tally down on paper of each time she’s practiced the pledge — enough ticks now to fill almost an entire 80-page notebook. Her sister has heard it over and over. Even her dogs probably recognize it now.
When she gets her moment Wednesday, it’ll be a chance to elevate the work she’s done for so many years, much of it difficult and, in some ways, lonely. Being the first for so much of her career led to push back and discrimination, Hall said.
Most recently, she and her coworkers have been on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic as first responders and often the first to arrive after a 911 call, doing work that previously had been underappreciated. Some of it they were prepared for, Hall said.
“The fire services … gives the gift of resilience, it gives us the gift of perseverance. Firefighters know how to compose themselves in some of the worst situations,” Hall said. “So when we have pandemics and things like this, these are things that we are prepared for — we prepare for day in and day out.”
And even still, the loss has been immense, pushing essential workers like her beyond the limits of what they’re trained to cope with.
“It was swift, it was massive, and it affected a lot of us personally. We’ve lost coworkers, we’ve lost family members,” Hall said. “In the midst of all of that we still have to come to work. We came to work without complaints.”
The challenges of this year have often found Hall returning to a quote from author Napoleon Hill that has helped guide her thinking: “For every bad thing that happens to you, there is equal and opposite — or better — benefits,” Hall said. “You just have to look for it. It’s a matter of perspective.”
In some ways, her part in the inauguration will be the benefit after years of difficulties, after a pandemic has put her and her coworkers at risk.
Hall said she’d be taking her sister, Whitney Williams-Smith, as her guest Wednesday, a symbol of the path she has worked to carve out in what has long been a field dominated by men. Williams-Smith is a first, too: She recently became the first Black woman to serve as chief fire marshall at the Savannah Fire Department. She was inspired to enter the field by her older sister.
Hall likes to make the comparison to tennis pros Venus and Sereena Williams. Venus, the older sister, went out and blazed the trail that Sereena would walk next, exceeding her sister’s accomplishments.
“I see my sister the same way,” Hall said. “I think she will far exceed anything I ever accomplish in the fire service.”