A 14-year veteran of the San Francisco Fire Department was tapped Saturday to take over the agency’s top job, a nomination likely to make her the first woman to head a major California fire department and one of the few female fire bosses in the nation.
If she is confirmed by the San Francisco Fire Commission, which is considered likely, Joanne Hayes-White would head an 1,800-member department that hired its first woman firefighter in 1987 and was later ordered by a court to hire more women and members of minority groups.
“I think it sends a message to young women, little girls and women in general that there are no boundaries,” Hayes-White said at an event for newly installed Mayor Gavin Newsom to announce her appointment. “You can do whatever you like.”
Hayes-White, 39, would replace outgoing fire chief Mario Trevino, who resigned in October but agreed to stay on until Newsom took office.
As of September, 16 U.S. fire departments had female chiefs, but none of those agencies was as large as San Francisco’s, according to the website of Women in the Fire Service, a nonprofit group in Madison, Wis. Among the larger female-headed departments were those in Cobb County, Ga.; Tacoma, Wash.; and Little Rock, Ark.
The only California agencies headed by women were in Davis and Carmel-by-the-Sea.
Officials with Women in the Fire Service could not be reached for comment.
About 6,200 women work as full-time career firefighters and officers nationwide, according to the website.
“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, who had been inaugurated two days earlier and is, at 36, the city’s youngest mayor in more than a century.
Irma Herrera, executive director of Equality Rights Advocates, a San Francisco group that sued the department for discriminating against women in its hiring practices, attended Newsom’s announcement and hailed the appointment as a breakthrough for women.
“This is evidence that this is a great city and that women are making impressive gains in the fight toward equality,” Herrera said. “Breaking into a boys’ club has been a difficult, long-term process, but the women persevered.”
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 minority group members.
About 230 of the city’s 1,800 firefighters are women.
Some female firefighters have voiced complaints about the department’s male-dominated culture. In November, Kristin Odlaugh, a four-year veteran, filed a sexual harassment complaint, saying that drinking was common at her fire station and made work difficult.
Newsom said he had selected Hayes-White because of her support among the department’s rank and file, familiarity with its neighborhood stations and budget experience.
“She has distinguished herself as someone who understands dollars and has a tremendous amount of sense as well,” Newsom said.
Hayes-White would take the job at a time when the San Francisco Fire Department, like similar agencies across California, faces budget cuts because of a statewide financial crunch.
“I look forward to coming up with creative solutions to avoid layoffs in San Francisco,” she said.
Hayes-White, a San Francisco native who has worked in all of the city’s 41 fire stations, was most recently the department’s assistant deputy chief and director of training.