FRESNO, California (KGPE) – In 1978, Michael Smith broke the color barrier in the Monterey fire department as the first black firefighter. It would become a familiar theme throughout Smith’s career, but the assignment came with its detractors.

“I was told that there was some opposition to me coming in as the first black firefighter,” Retired Fire Chief Michael Smith recalled about his first assignment.

Smith would quickly earn the respect of others in that house and by 1981 he was climbing the ranks in the San Jose fire department where he would eventually reach the rank of deputy chief.

In 1994, he was hired in Fresno. 

At the time I was in middle school track and field athlete. While visiting the home of a teammate, I met his dad. Little did I know I was meeting the first African American fire chief in Fresno.

Now retired, Smith reflected on his experience in the Central Valley.

‘It was challenging and rewarding and I really loved the time that I spent in Fresno.”

He credits the department’s handling of a Learjet crash in his first year left many minds at ease about his ability to lead.

“By us getting through that incident as well as we did,  helped to move us along  me as a fire chief and the rest of the department,” Smith said

During the course of his nine-year career smith says he expanded the promotion system weighing more than just firefighters’ test scores. 

“What they did for the department, what they did for the community, and generally how they were as a person.”

A holistic approach led to increases in the department’s backgrounds and genders. 

“I was able to bring on several women including the current fire chief, I hired her.”

It would turn out to be, the unofficial passing of the baton.

““He gave me a shot, he hired me as an entry-level firefighter,” said Fire Chief Kerri Donis.

In 2014, Kerri Donis took the reigns of the department.

“We have done great things as a team and I’m glad I can be a role model for women in the profession,” Donis said

Continuing the 143 year legacy of the department, serving the city of Fresno is a great source of pride. A legacy she plans to sustain by continuing to attract the best and the brightest.

Donis recently held a recruitment town hall meeting. It was the first open recruitment conducted by the department in a decade.

“Strong work ethic, and a positive attitude we are doing a recruitment in the spring and we can teach you to be a firefighter.”

Recruitment materials for the department make it clear they are striving to have firefighters that look like those they serve.

“The makeup of our fire department should match the diversity in our community period.”