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‘Sometimes you have to see it to be it,’ says Springfield’s first African American District Chief Tyrone Denson
Updated On: Feb 11, 2020


‘Sometimes you have to see it to be it,’ says Springfield’s first African American District Chief Tyrone Denson

District Chief Tyrone Denson

Chief Tyrone Denson in January became the first-ever African American district chief of the Springfield Fire Department. (Douglas Hook / MassLive)

In a first for Springfield, the city has appointed its first African American district chief.

Tyrone Denson has been appointed the new district chief of Station 3 on White Street.

“It was unexpected,” said Denson who was officially made district chief on Jan. 20. He said that this position he now holds was never something he expected when he joined in the late ’90s.

“I wanted to be the best firefighter I could be and eventually it landed me in this position,” said Denson.

At his promotion ceremony, Springfield Commissioner B.J. Calvi and Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno paid special tribute to Denson.

“I also want to acknowledge District Chief Denson on this historic occasion of being the first African American to be promoted to District Chief. I am looking forward to working with him on behalf of our residents,” Commissioner B.J. Calvi said.

“I also wish to recognize our newly promoted District Fire Chief Tyrone Denson on becoming the first African American to serve at this position,” said Mayor Domenic Sarno. “This is a well-deserved and earned promotion and another milestone for our city’s history, our Fire Department and my administration. Congratulations and Godspeed.”

Springfield has had a fire service since Jan. 17, 1794, formed by citizens to make what was called the fire club. The Springfield Fire department was born, making it one of the oldest established fire departments in the country.

In 1997, Denson first saw an advertisement in the paper for the fire service asking for minorities to join the ranks of the fire department. It was one of three careers he was interested in at the time. But he finally chose the fire service because of the opportunities it gave.

Born and raised on Wellington Street in Upper Hill, Denson said that he was humbled, honored and grateful to be in this position.

Denson is still waiting for the weight of this historic promotion to sink in. He gives off a humble and relaxed atmosphere and seems to be taking the significant promotion all in his stride. When there is an emergency his demeanor transforms.

“I'm the kind of guy who likes to go in and try and solve the problem,” Denson added.

Denson spoke of the first African American Springfield firefighter Leonard A. Corbin who paved the way for him and his colleagues in the service.

Every year Corbin is honored outside of Mason Square Fire Station in Springfield.

Mason Square was Corbin’s first assignment when he was hired in 1969 and at that time, he was the only black firefighter in the department, and one of the first two in the entire state.

“I wish I knew that then,” said Denson. “I didn’t realize the impact that he had. I just thought that African Americans would have been on the job way before then.”

Having another person to talk to when Denson joined, to speak to about the role of a firefighter and particularly as a minority would have been valuable. It’s something that he thinks about often.

“I want to create pathways to help others lift [themselves] up. I’m a firm believer that sometimes you have to see it to be it,” said Denson. “I’d never seen an African-American firefighter growing up, so I didn’t think that actually, I could really be [one].”

This couldn’t be further from the truth as Denson can now attest to. There are still problems however in recruiting more minorities into the service as he has seen in his own district.

“I talk to the recruiter and she told me that African Americans are not signing up,” said Denson. “When I first joined, we had almost 500 firefighters. Now we're down to 250-260. Firefighter [numbers] are going down every year and then she says [it’s because] they’re not following the process.”

To apply for the fire service there is a lot of paperwork and bureaucracy that the potential recruits have to go through. Many give up before the process is complete.

Denson does feel the future is positive in this regard. The department pushing to gain more minorities to the ranks to better represent the community they serve.

In 2019, African Americans made up over 21% of the total population of Springfield. In the fire department there are 41 African American firefighters that make up 17% of Springfield firefighters. Denson has hopes that more will join in the future. He already has two cousins in the department and other family members looking to join.

This year also marks the sesquicentennial of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, which prohibited denying someone the right to vote based on race.

Springfield’s neighboring city Chicopee also celebrated a first last month as well with the first all-female firefighting crew at Station 7.

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