San Francisco fire chief announces retirement after 28-year career

SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White, the first woman ever to lead the department and the longest-serving big-city fire chief in the country, told her department on Monday she’s retiring.

She has agreed to stay on the job until spring to give Mayor London Breed time to find her replacement. Her ideal retirement date, she said, is May 5, 2019, a “small tribute” to the late Mayor Ed Lee, who would have turned 67 that day.

By that point, Hayes-White will have held the job for 15 years and four months — more than a decade longer than the average tenure for a big-city fire chief.

The 54-year-old Hayes-White, who joined the department in 1990 as one of its first female firefighters, started thinking about retiring last year. But in a meeting with Lee in the summer of 2017, he persuaded her to stay on the job through his second term, which would have ended in January 2020.

“I made that commitment to him,” Hayes-White said Monday morning in an interview in her office at Fire Department headquarters on Second Street. “I loved working for Mayor Lee. He was not only someone I had great admiration and respect for, but he became a friend. His ordinariness made him extraordinary, and I just loved every part of him.”

Lee’s unexpected death in December meant her commitment was void. And coming alongside the early deaths of two other friends, it prompted her to re-evaluate her priorities.

“I kind of reset after he passed away — that was tough,” she said, saying it’s time to step back and enjoy time outside the office. “It’s time to close out a phenomenal career.”

In one of those twists of history, Lee made it possible for Hayes-White to become chief long before Mayor Gavin Newsom appointed her to the position in January 2004.

Lee, as a private civil rights attorney working for the Asian Law Caucus, was on the team that sued the city in 1984, saying the Fire Department discriminated against women and minorities in its hiring process. The suit led to a federal consent decree overseeing department hiring, and the first women entered the department in the fall of 1987.

Hayes-White joined in 1990, about the 10th or 12th woman in the department ever, she said. Hayes-White said Monday that she has hired more than 1,200 of the department’s nearly 1,800 staff members and that she’s proud it’s now one of the most diverse fire departments in the world.

When Newsom appointed her weeks after becoming mayor, Hayes-White was quoted in The Chronicle: “It sends a message to little girls and women that there are no boundaries. You can do whatever you like.”

Now it’s time for Hayes-White to do whatever she likes. And that means hanging up her helmet for good.

“Big-city fire chiefs, it’s usually a three- or four-year tenure,” she said. “I’m very proud and feel very honored. It’s been a huge privilege to serve as chief.”

She said she was able to raise three boys — mostly as a single mom — while also managing a major fire department because of support from her deputies, family members and friends.

“I’m a high-energy person,” she said. “I don’t get much sleep.”

She said the decision to step down was entirely her own and has nothing to do with Breed’s election in July. As a supervisor in 2014, Breed called for Hayes-White to resign because of the department’s inability to get ambulances to emergencies promptly.

In 2014, a statue at Fisherman’s Wharf fell on a 2-year-old boy, and the sole available ambulance was on the other side of the city and took 13 minutes to respond. An 87-year-old woman with a broken hip waited 32 minutes for an ambulance. A North Beach man with a severed finger waited 38 minutes for an ambulance — his finger on ice next to him.

Breed wrote in an opinion piece in The Chronicle that since the Fire Department had been given the funds to purchase 16 new ambulances but had been slow to buy them, Hayes-White should step down. Leaders of firefighter employee groups made the same argument, imploring Lee to fire her.

Both Hayes-White and Breed on Monday dismissed the disagreement as part of the past and agreed that the Fire Department is in much better shape than it was then. A scorecard from the controller’s office shows that ambulances in San Francisco now respond to emergencies within 10 minutes 93 percent of the time. The goal is 90 percent. At the low point in 2014, the rate was 76 percent.

The ambulance crisis came the year after two other scandals in the Fire Department. In 2013, it came under fire for its response to the Asiana Airlines crash at SFO that resulted in three deaths, including that of a 15-year-old girl who was run over by a fire truck.

That same summer saw questions about the department’s handling of the case of Michael Quinn, a veteran firefighter who was accused of driving a fire truck into a motorcyclist while drunk and leaving the scene.

“It’s definitely not a popularity contest,” Hayes-White said of the job. “What I pride myself on is being as decisive as I can in a reasonable amount of time after gathering all the facts.”

Asked what she thinks of Hayes-White’s retirement, Breed said, “It’s her decision. That’s fine with me.”

The mayor said that despite their past disagreements, she’s always gotten along personally with the fire chief and praised her love of San Francisco, dedication to the department and commitment to hard work.

The mayor said she’s open to someone from inside or outside the department and will go through a thorough application process to pick the chief’s successor. Hayes-White said her preference would be somebody from within the department.

Hayes-White was one of several high-profile women hired or promoted by Newsom. Another was Naomi Kelly, whom he hired as city purchaser — she became the first female city administrator after Lee left the post to become mayor. Kelly said she looked to Hayes-White for guidance on how to do a high-profile, demanding job while raising young children.

“Just having that personal relationship with her was great, to talk about managing it all and balancing it out,” Kelly said. “I just admire her, that she was able to do that and do it for so long.”

Another female city department head, Port Director Elaine Forbes, said she has admired Hayes-White since her appointment as fire chief and now counts her as a mentor.

“In those days, there weren’t a lot of women in big leadership positions, and certainly not in uniform,” Forbes said. “She’s just emanated great leadership in good times and bad. She’s always maintained a ton of integrity and kindness.”

Hayes-White credited Lee for his kindness in sticking by her side during the rough years, which has enabled her to leave on her own terms.

The fire chief still has Lee’s turnouts — the gear he would wear to an emergency — in a plastic bag on the floor of her office. She remembered attending Thanksgiving turkey carvings with the mayor, where he saved the wishbones for his wife, Anita, saying they were good luck.

She also recalled attending an earthquake drill in an elementary school last year with the notoriously corny mayor, who joked that with his short stature, he could easily fit underneath the pint-sized desks with the kids.

“I said, ‘We can barely fit under here,’ and he said, ‘It works for me!’” she said with a laugh.

She recalled attending a meeting with Lee about Treasure Island development the morning of Dec. 12, and getting a call late that night saying the mayor was ill at the Safeway on San Francisco’s Monterey Boulevard.

By the time she drove there, Lee was in an ambulance in the parking lot and gave her a wave. She followed the ambulance to San Francisco General Hospital and stayed with him in his room until he died a few hours later.

Hayes-White said that after her retirement, she plans to take her mother, 93-year-old Patricia Hayes, on a road trip to Oregon to see her own father’s grave for the first time. Hayes-White and her mom are next-door neighbors, and the chief said she visits her mother three times a day: for coffee before work, at dinner and before bedtime.

“I don’t ever plan to depart this city — this is the city of my birth and the city where I’ll pass away as well,” Hayes-White said, noting that she wants to stay active in the community.

She’ll also need to hit the stores. She’s almost always seen in her black-and-white uniform with gold stripes around the sleeves, her blond hair pulled back in a ponytail.

“I’ve been wearing a uniform for 40 years,” she said, counting her time in grammar school. “I don’t have any nice clothes. I’ll need to go shopping.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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