The San Francisco Fire Commission on Thursday approved Mayor Gavin Newsom’s choice of Joanne Hayes-White as the next chief of the San Francisco Fire Department. After her swearing-in ceremony today at 5 p.m. in the city hall rotunda, it’s believed San Francisco will become the largest urban fire department in the world with a female chief.
”This is a historic day in San Francisco, and this is a first for the San Francisco Fire Department, and I am proud to have the privilege of making this choice,'' said Newsom.
The San Francisco Fire Department has about 1,800 paid firefighters who staff 41 fire stations and protect a 49-square-mile metropolitan district. The resident population of about 800,000 swells to 1.3 million during business hours. The department’s annual budget is $227 million.
Hayes-White, 39, has been with the department for 14 years and has been deputy assistant chief and director of training for four years. She will replace Fire Chief Mario Trevino, who resigned in October but stayed on until last week.
“It’s very exciting, and it’s wonderful to be considered a role model,” said Hayes-White. “I’ve received an outpouring of support, not only from our membership, but from people from throughout the country and in the Bay Area.”
One woman in the Bay Area sent Hayes-White a letter asking if she could attend the swearing-in ceremony. “She wanted to bring her three daughters,” said Hayes-White, “because she thought it was a wonderful message, that you really can do anything if you put your mind to it.”
Hayes-White, a San Francisco native, came to the department after graduating from the University of Santa Clara with a degree in business. She was hired as a firefighter in April 1990, promoted to lieutenant in 1993 and made captain in January 1996. In May 1996 she was made acting battalion chief with oversight of the department’s dispatch and communications systems. She oversaw the installation of a computer-aided dispatch system and automated information systems that vastly streamlined the department’s dispatch and records management.
Another of Hayes-White’s accomplishments was unifying dispatch operations in 1998 under the Emergency Communications Department, which brought fire, EMS and police dispatch communications under one roof, improving response times and interagency collaboration.
Promoted to assistant deputy chief in 1998, she was responsible for the Division of Support Services, the Bureau of Communications, the Bureau of Equipment, the Bureau of Engineering and Water Supply, Management Information Systems, and Renovations.
As assistant deputy chief and director of training since March 2000, she has overseen recruit training, in-service training and continuing education, and firefighter-paramedic cross training. She developed the Battalion-Based In Service Training Program that effectively tripled the number of formal training hours for all members of the department, with no additional cost.
Hayes-White has an active family life as well. She has three sons, ages 10, six and four, and a supportive husband. “I’m humbled by being in this position. As a native of San Francisco, it’s a dream come true. But for a lot of reasons, I wouldn’t be here without such a supportive family,” she said.
According to the Associated Press, Newsom, 36, is San Francisco’s youngest mayor in more than a century. He was installed only two days before announcing his appointment of Hayes-White as fire chief. He said he chose Hayes-White because of her support among the department’s rank and file, familiarity with its stations and budget experience.
As training director, Hayes-White has worked in all of the department’s 41 fire stations; she prides herself on knowing 90% of the department’s members by first name.
The San Francisco Fire Department wasn’t always female-friendly. The department didn’t hire its first female firefighter until 1987. AP reports that “The San Francisco Fire Department was forced to diversify its ranks in 1988 after a U.S. District Court judge ordered the department to hire more women and minorities.”
Currently, 12%, about 230, of the city's 1,800 firefighters are women.
Hayes-White will become the 18th woman to lead a career fire department in the United States, according to Terese Floren, executive director of Women in the Fire Service, a nonprofit networking and resource organization based in Madison, Wis.
Floren said Andrea Tuttle, division director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, with more than 5,000 firefighters, will remain the female leading the largest fire service organization, but Hayes-White’s department will become the largest urban fire department in the world under a woman’s leadership. The Cobb County (Ga.) fire department (with about 600 paid firefighters led by Chief Rebecca Denlinger) and the Tacoma (Wash.) Fire Department (with about paid 435 firefighters led by Chief Eileen Lewis), will become second and third largest, respectively.
Women have led volunteer fire departments since the 1930s, according to WFS. While numbers of women in volunteer ranks are more difficult to track, WFS estimates more than 150 female volunteer fire chiefs are active in the United States at any given time.
In the next five to 10 years, Floren predicts more and more women will rise through the ranks to the chief’s positions. Departments first began hiring female firefighters in the 1970s; so today’s fire service has a growing pool of women who have served for 10, 20 and 30 years from which to select its leadership. “You’re starting to get women who have the kind of tenure on departments and the kind of credentials that departments are looking for,” said Floren.
The more women get into executive positions, she added, the less gender is an issue.