ON THE RECORD/Taking her turn in the hot seat
On Jan. 16, Joanne Hayes-White was sworn in as the new chief of the San Francisco Fire Department. The first woman to head a large urban fire department in the U.S., Hayes-White was chosen by Mayor Gavin Newsom to lead the department that is facing budgetary problems and lingering difficulties from the merger of the firefighting and paramedic departments in the late 1990s. Though she only has 14 years under her belt — significantly less experience compared to the typical 28 years of fire chiefs — Hayes-White believes her ability to listen and encourage teamwork will make her a success. The San Francisco native is managing a department of 1,800 people in 41 stations that respond to about 300,000 incidences each year.
Q: What initially drew you to firefighting?
Hayes-White: Growing up, a career in the fire service wasn’t really an option for women. So it wasn’t something that as a young child I aspired to. [However,] I was always very intrigued by the red fire engines and always had a positive feeling that the fire department [consisted of] people that were always there to help. The appeal and the draw for me was the opportunity to effect positive change on [people who] may be experiencing a chaotic time in their lives, whether it be from a fire, an accident or a medical condition. There also is the excitement part of it. When you’re working the 24-hour shift, you go to work at 8 o’clock in the morning, and you really don’t know how your day is going to unfold.
Q: What issues will you focus on as chief, and how will you approach them?
A: This is week two for me, and I’ve done the first part of my restructuring, which is to select my deputy chief of administration and my deputy chief of operations. We’re really the team of three that will then assess what other changes, realignment and restructuring we need to do. I have very much an open-door policy. I like to hear people’s ideas and opinions, and I think that means a lot to people.
Q: How do you forsee the city’s budgetary problems affecting your role and policies as fire chief?
A: In the current fiscal year, we are being asked to look at some mid-year adjustments and reductions. We [had] an operating budget of approximately $227 million last fiscal year. This fiscal year, it was reduced to $206 million. So, more than $20 million was cut, and now for [the] 2004-2005 fiscal year, we are being asked to [cut another] approximately $7 million. And it’s difficult because [about 89 percent of] our [expenditures are for salary.]
Q: What response have you received from the community about your confirmation?
A: Internally, from our membership, the majority have been very positive. There seems to be a real renewed enthusiasm for what’s to come. I would say the support from the community has been overwhelming. I marched in the Martin Luther King Jr. celebration, and people I don’t even know were waving to me from the street corners and saying, “Good job” and “Congratulations.” Little girls have sent letters saying, “You’re my role model.” It’s humbling, and it makes me very proud.
Q: What does it mean to you to be the first female fire department chief for a large U.S. city?
A: It is a big deal — apparently more so than I thought — to be the first female fire chief of a large urban city. And my feeling is that Mayor Newsom selected me because of my qualifications and my competency. But certainly I can’t discount the fact that people are excited about opening doors for young women [and] to see that women have the ability and competency to be a fire chief.