Seattle Fire Battalion Chief Tamalyn Nigretto, the incident commander at the Greenwood explosion and Ride the Ducks crash, says the department has gone out its way to hide her, her accomplishments and those of other females in the fire service.

Share story

Seattle Fire Department Battalion Chief Tamalyn Nigretto says it was like a slap in the face when she saw a lieutenant being interviewed on television about the Greenwood explosion.

Nothing against him, but she had been the incident commander — the ranking commander at the scene and in charge of the response — when the natural-gas blast leveled two buildings last week, yet she had not been asked to speak to the media.

She also was not invited to the fire station where Gov. Jay Inslee personally congratulated the fire crew, including some who, like Nigretto, were injured in the March 9 explosion.

For the 16-year battalion chief — one of two women to hold that rank in the department — those two slights were “the final straw.”

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Nigretto, 57, a member of the department since 1987, has been the incident commander at a number of high-profile call-outs, including the Greenwood explosion and September’s deadly Ride the Ducks crash. She says she has applied for, and been denied, promotions regularly since 1999.

Last Tuesday, Nigretto’s wife, Lise Ellner, wrote a letter to Fire Chief Harold Scoggins, Mayor Ed Murray and Inslee criticizing the department for failing to “recognize and appreciate Chief Nigretto’s extraordinary accomplishments in successfully managing Seattle’s most devastating and catastrophic incidents.”

The Fire Department says there was no deliberate attempt to ignore Nigretto or her contributions.

“None of this was intended, and I feel bad Chief Nigretto feels that way,” said Scoggins. “Chief Nigretto did a great job (at Greenwood). Everyone did a great job, but I didn’t reach out to anyone individually.”

According to Fire Department spokeswoman Corey Orvold, Lt. Edward Newell was asked to speak at the news conference the day after the Greenwood explosion because he had already agreed to a TV interview.

Orvold also said that Inslee’s visit to the first-responders in Greenwood was impromptu and unplanned and that no slight to Nigretto was intended.

Nonetheless, Nigretto says the two incidents underscore how difficult it has been for women to make their mark and advance in a field dominated by white men.

Letting the public know that she was in charge of the Ride the Ducks crash, which made international news, would have been “a great platform for the department to celebrate the accomplishments of women and to recruit women and minorities,” she said.

“Instead, they’ve gone out of their way not to contact me or give me an opportunity to speak,” she said. “ I would have loved to have met the governor and to be part of mentoring women and girls who might see me and think, ’Whoa! I could do that.’ ”

Nigretto said there have been few meaningful efforts to recruit women to the fire service and little chance for advancement through the ranks. In the department’s history, only two women have served as deputy chiefs.

Scoggins, who has been with the department just under a year, agrees the department needs to do a better job when it comes to recruiting women and minorities. He said that one of the mayor’s initiatives has been to bring more women and minorities into the Fire Department.

“Our numbers aren’t where they should be on any level,” said Scoggins. “However, I don’t see this as an overnight process.”

To entice more minority and female recruits, the department recently removed the requirement that firefighter applicants be emergency-medical technicians. That training will now be provided by the Fire Department, a move that will increase the total number of applicants, including women and minorities.

There has been some success, Scoggins said. Between 2013 and 2015, he said, the percentage of white males in the department has declined, while the number of minorities, except for Alaskan Natives and Native Americans, increased.

However, the overwhelming number of firefighters are male and white. Out of a total of 1,006 firefighters, 766 are white males and 78 are females.

“I think in the ’90s and early 2000s we didn’t do so well and we’re not where we should be, but I believe our recruitment efforts are having an impact,” Scoggins said.

The city’s first female firefighter, Barbara “Bonnie” Beers, was hired in 1977.

By the time Nigretto was hired 10 years later, there were 54 female firefighters and by 1992, she and four other women had held the rank of lieutenant, captain and battalion chief.

She said that after she was denied a position as deputy chief last year, she asked Scoggins why she was not promoted and he told her that she has an edge to her, a sharpness. “I need you to dull that,” she said he told her.

She concedes that she is a stickler for correct action and training.

“I want the people I work with to be safe and I want things done right. Would they hold that against me if I were a man? No, they would say he holds people accountable.”

Scoggins, who is black, agreed that he told her she had “a hardness” to her that he feared would prevent subordinates from feeling they “could open up to her.”

However, he said, Nigretto “is well thought of and well respected” and that she is not the only unsuccessful candidate who questioned his selection and told him they thought they were more qualified than the people he chose.

Nevertheless, he said he believes he promoted the right people.

Nigretto said that after her wife sent the letter to Scoggins, she decided to speak up about what she described as institutional sexism.

She said she is not seeking anything for herself nor is she motivated by pride.

“It would have been nice to be told I did a good job, but I’m past that. I’m doing this for the all the women who come after me.”