Throughout her career as a Buffalo Firefighter, Shelby Thompson has carried in her heart the motto that is honored in every fire department throughout the world: “Ut Vivant Alii” which means “So Others May Live.”
“I always felt that I was blessed with the position of being a firefighter so that I might be a blessing to someone else,” said the 19-year veteran of the Buffalo Fire Department.
Now she feels she can be more of a blessing and inspiration to young women after making history as the first Black Female Lieutenant in the Buffalo Fire Department. She was elevated to that historic rank on Feb.14th
-From Arkansas to Buffalo-
Shelby Jeannette McKinney-Thompson was born and raised in Wabash, Arkansas on a small farm in a family of five girls and two boys. As a young woman, she admits her career goal was light years away from becoming a firefighter.
She thought she either wanted to be a dancer or a singer like her idol Janet Jackson. “Thank God I didn’t try to pursue either career,” she laughed. She attended college for Business Administration and eventually moved to Buffalo in 1986.
A single mother of four, she was still working at Milliard Fillmore Gates Hospital as a CNA when she decided to take the firefighter’s entrance exam in hopes of being able to provide a better life for her and her children.
She was successful and joined the force in 2000. Shelby took her career seriously and worked hard. “It’s the best career you could ever have,” she said.
In 2017 she sought to further her career by taking the Lieutenant’s exam. The challenge was enormous. It was the same year that her eldest son Ralph died suddenly following medical complications.
“I couldn’t focus while trying to study for the exam,” she recalled, adding that it was also hard to focus when she actually took the test. “But I could feel my son telling me I could do it!”
Two years later she was notified of the results. It was good news. “I was at home when I got the call. After I hung up the phone I dropped to my knees and thanked God. That was one of the proudest moments I ever had in my life,” Lt. Thompson recalled, “Nothing but God enabled me to pass!”
As a Lieutenant she said her focus will be on fire prevention.
“I don’t fight fires anymore” said the veteran firefighter of Engines 36,26,28 and most recently, Engine 4.
-Challenges & Triumphs–
When Lt. Thompson first joined the Buffalo Fire Department it had been under a court Order since 1979 to diversify its ranks. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the department hired its very first Black female firefighter, Ellen Paulette Peoples. That historic desegregation court order was closed this February about a week or so before Shelby was appointed.
Being a female – particularly a Black female – in a male-dominated field has had its share of challenges.
“The biggest challenge for me was to convince them (the men) that I could do the job despite the fact I was a woman,” she said. “I think I’ve been able to do that and have earned their respect.”
During her career Shelby has participated in numerous fire safety presentations and demonstrations at various schools, community centers, churches and child car seat safety events. She is a Certified Child Passenger Safety Seat Technician and an EMT and has served as an assistant teacher at East High School in the Community Emergency Response Team Program.
A proud and active member of St. Martin dePorress R. C. Church, Shelby is the recipient of a number of awards and citations.
However, the most rewarding thing in her life she said “is serving God and being a mother to my children Ralph (In Memoriam), Tomeka, ReShaun, and Desiree who are my greatest inspiration.”
Her youngest son ReShaun was once asked if his mom could handle being a firefighter. He summed it up this way: “If she can handle raising us as a single mom, she can handle anything!”
Lt. Thompson expressed heartfelt gratitude for the tremendous support of her family, friends and home church throughout her career.
”It’s not easy for a female in general but as a Black female and single mother, it’s even tougher,” she reflected. “My faith in God get me through everything I’ve been through so far. I’m thankful to have achieved such an historical accomplishment.”