Tracy Smith walked out of the burning building, ripped off her gloves and helmet and ran her hands through her sweat-soaked, spiky hair.
She yanked her face shield off and — with her face a splotchy red from the combination of heat and adrenaline — told the four Columbus State Community College students she had just led through the training fire: “I was cooking in there!”
Then she smiled.
“Let’s talk about what went right and what went wrong.”
Her exhausted students smiled back, and soon they were all talking at once about what it was like to run into a smoky environment — albeit a tightly-controlled one at the Ohio Fire Academy in Reynoldsburg — and put the fire out.
Being led by Smith is the best a fire-science student can hope for, 23-year-old Andrew Chappelear said.
“She is straight and to the point and tells you everything like it is,” said Chappelear, who was among the students going through their live-fire exercises earlier this month as one of the last steps toward earning their Ohio firefighting credentials. “Everything she tells us is something we will take directly into our career. Watching the fire was definitely mesmerizing, and she was like, ‘Let’s go! Let’s go!’ She’s great.”
That happened to be a student talking about Smith and her work at Columbus State, where she is an adjunct professor. But the sentiment is the same no matter whom you talk to.
Just ask her boss at the Columbus Division of Fire, where she is the highest-ranking woman ever, having been promoted to assistant chief in October. Or her 25-year-old police-officer daughter, who followed her into a career of public service. Or her personal trainer, who coached her to earn her pro card with the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness this past fall at the age of – wait for it! – 55.
They all speak of the same drive that fuels every aspect of Smith’s life, the fierce determination that propels her forward. And they all marvel at her ability to be a loyal friend, a competent teacher, a great mom to both humans and her treasured French bulldog, Elliott, and a role model in a career where women are about as rare as Halley’s Comet.
Smith is philosophical about it all.
“I want any woman — any person, really — to know that if you put in the work and you have the determination, the discipline and a little hope, you can go anywhere you want to go,” she said one day, sitting behind her paperwork covered desk in her largely understated and unadorned office at the Columbus Division of Fire headquarters on the South Side.
“Girls are still so often told ‘You should be a homemaker. You should go into business. You should be a lawyer’” Smith said. “But the reality? You can be a firefighter, too. And a damn good one.”
From Grove City to great things
Smith, who grew up in Grove City and was a key player on the only championship girls’ high-school softball team that the Greyhounds have won there, spent a long time in the banking and lending industry. She never thought firefighting would be a thing for her.
Turns out, it was. She became disheartened with the practices of the financial world and — with a dad who was a Grove City police officer — turned an eye toward public service. She had two close friends already at the Columbus Division of Fire, so at the age of 31, she entered the city’s training academy and never looked back. It took her two times to pass the test but she, of course, never gave up.
“I fell in love with it,” she said. “Everything about fire service challenged me. And I love to be challenged.”
Truer words may never have been spoken.
Smith met her best friend, Sandy Loeper, in the academy and the two became so close they eventually built log homes next to each other on five acres of wooded property in central Ohio. (Both have since moved on; Smith lives near the Polaris area now, Loeper in Powell).
“Loyal. Respectful. Dedicated. Hard worker. Very professional. That’s Tracy,” Loeper said. “From the instant you meet her — and this was true for me — everyone knows that Tracy has your back. You can go talk to her and have a conversation with her whether it is personal or professional. She listens.”
Loeper, who is currently a battalion chief with Columbus Fire, said that when they entered the academy together, there were even fewer woman in the division than there are now. And that number is still below average.
There are 46 women out of almost 1,600 people in the ranks of Columbus Fire today, the bulk of those — 42 — are firefighters. That’s just under 3%.
By comparison, nationally, about 8% of the more than 1.1 million firefighters in the U.S. are female, with most of them on volunteer departments, according to a report issued last year by the National Fire Protection Association.
Diversity efforts: City of Columbus has pledge to increase fire, police ranks
That’s below the representation in similar fields, where 13% of police officers or detectives are female and 21% of paramedics or EMTs are women, according to the NFPA report. Twenty percent of the U.S. military is made up of women.
Smith is working hard to change that in her ground-breaking role as assistant chief of this large urban department.
In her career, she served at some of the city’s busiest stations, including Station 14 on the South Side and Station 6 on the North Side. Even now, as assistant chief over the Emergency Services Bureau — meaning the men and women on the street who respond to every call — she goes out and throws hoses when necessary. When the Yenkin-Majestic Paints building on Leonard Avenue exploded in early April, Smith was right there in the thick of it, fighting the blaze alongside fellow firefighters.
“Mentorship is so important. I want to be out there in the community where people — where young girls and women — can see me and know that they can do what I do,” she said. “There is so much more to the fire service than running a hose. We save lives every single day. I want women to do this. I want them to know they can do this. I want to empower them.”
Bodybuilding and a winning attitude
Just as she is all in when throwing a line at a fire, others say Smith is equally committed to her physical fitness and mental wellbeing. Whether she is pulling 435 pounds off a rack or leg-pressing more than 700 pounds with her 5 foot 4 frame, there’s no stopping her.
Always athletic, she began the journey into this professional bodybuilding phase of her life about five years ago after she tore her rotator cuff at work.
“After my surgery, I sat around eating Doritos and drinking beer. That wasn’t cool,” Smith said with a laugh. “I eventually knew something had to change.”
Her daughter, Jordan Lyle, had competed in an amateur bodybuilding competition. And Smith met personal fitness coach Jonathan Weiss, whom she worked with to get back in shape.
“Getting Tracy in a show wasn’t even on my radar. I’m anti-show, really, because you can get in the best shape of your life and come in dead last,” said Weiss, a giant of a man who owns Cardinal Fitness in Westerville. “But she is an animal. And the work ethic was obviously there. So I said, ‘Let’s try this.’”
And try this she did.
Smith competed in a few shows in the bodybuilding and physique category, and placed higher each time. Then, at the 2020 National Physique Committee Teen, Collegiate and National Masters Championships in Florida in September, she took first in two classes. That earned her the coveted professional card to compete in International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness competitions — think the Arnold Classic here locally. It’s a whole other level.
Her daughter, Lyle, who is a Hilliard Police officer, said watching her mom develop as a bodybuilder has been pure joy.
“She is incredibly strong, but I think that is simply a physical manifestation of her mental fortitude,” Lyle said. “She is always doing more and more, and the sky is the limit for her. It always has been.”
Smith said physical exercise has always been her mental release in a high-stress career. So the bodybuilding lifestyle was a natural extension of that.
“It was the next challenge,” Smith said. “Can I be that disciplined to do it? Can I obtain that goal?”
The answer for Smith, according to the man who maybe has watched her career the closest, is always yes.
Ned Pettus, a former fire chief who watched Smith rise through the ranks and had a hand in her promotion — and who is now her ultimate boss as the city of Columbus’ director of public safety — said he has never seen anyone quite like her.
“She is smart and a real go-getter. I knew she was going to do good things in the department,” Pettus said. “I want Tracy to be more visible. I want young people to see more of her so they can realize they can be her. I already know Tracy is capable of doing her job, and she is an important asset. But in helping to mentor the next generation … Tracy is an excellent role model.”
For her part, Smith is humbled by the opportunities afforded her at every level. And as she moves the division of fire forward, and as she approaches her first full competition season as a professional bodybuilder, she knows what she must do.
“I am so blessed to have a tribe of people around in my life who support everything I’ve ever done. And that’s help me understand that you don’t just piddle around in life,” she said. “You do what you do to win and to the best of your ability or you don’t do it at all.”