Even her own family doubted Lisa Simba when she told them she was going to apply to join the Alexandria Fire Department three decades ago. Now, the department is honoring her years of service that led to the rank of captain and to a role as a barrier breaker.
There were hugs and tears at the Alexandria Fire Department as Capt. Simba wraps up her 33 years there.
She’s leaving behind a long list of firsts: first Black woman in a uniformed position, first woman on a hazmat team, first Black female EMS supervisor.
She was just a few years out of D.C.'s Anacostia High School when she applied for a paramedic position in 1988. Her grandmother wondered if she could handle the rigorous training.
"She says, 'Baby, I don’t think you’re going to be able to do any of this. Do you see what’s on this list?'" Simba recalled.
But she got through recruit training, only to learn not everyone wanted her on their team because she was Black.
"One particular supervisor did not want me on their shift because they thought that I would be a problem," Simba said.
She confronted both racism and sexism in those early years.
"I had developed a tough-enough shell [that] I was able to withstand a lot of things that were coming at me," she said.
But she also realized that she was being seen as a role model.
"I get off the unit and this young girl, young Black girl runs up [and says] 'They have a Black lady … look, it's a Black lady getting off the ambulance!' and at that moment I was like, 'Wow! Really?'"
Simba was a role model both in the community and in the firehouse. She said she grabbed every opportunity to learn new skills, working her way up and earning promotions.
"Every time an opportunity came up, it wasn’t, 'I wonder if I can do it.' It was, 'I'm going to try to do that,'" she said.
Simba's career is chronicled in scrapbooks. One obituary is a reminder of one of her most memorable and heartbreaking calls: An 18-year-old had been shot.
"I just sat there with this young fella, and I prayed because his mom wasn’t there, so it was at that point I knew that I had to be his mom at that particular moment because he wasn’t going to make it, and he needed to know somebody loved and cared about him when he was leaving this earth," Simba said.
Simba and her team were also called to the Pentagon on 911. But perhaps her most important role was as a mentor.
"It's such a great representation for us all, not just for women, not just for minorities," said Lt. Kaandra Wilson of the Alexandria Fire Department. "Lisa is the epitome of what an excellent supervisor is."
The department Simba now leaves behind includes many more women, and women of color, than when she began.
"If nothing else happens in my life, just knowing that I was able to bring somebody up and they can take and bring somebody else up, just leaving that legacy," she said.
Simba's legacy will continue to fuel this fire department for years to come, and her knowledge will continue to be put to work — she’s also a member of Virginia EMS advisory Board.