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Mayor Breed appoints first openly LGBT fire chief to lead SFFD

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Deputy Chief Jeanine Nicholson speaks after Mayor London Breed appointed her as the new Chief of the San Francisco Fire Department at City Hall on Wednesday, March 13, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

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Mayor London Breed has announced her new fire chief, and the decision is a historic first.

Jeanine Nicholson, the deputy chief of administration and a 25-year veteran of the San Francisco Fire Department, will be The City’s first fire chief openly from the LGBT community.

“I’m humbled,” Nicholson said at a press conference Wednesday. Nicholson identifies as a lesbian.

She will take over the position from outgoing chief Joanne Hayes-White by May 5.

During the chief selection process, one criterion was voiced loud and clear from the rank and file: They wanted someone from inside the department who had served alongside them. Nicholson fits that bill.

She suffered second-degree burns fighting an arson fire on Felton Street in 2009 where five other firefighters were also injured, one critically. In a press conference Wednesday, Nicholson said she thought of that man, Chris Posey, as a “brother.”

“He came back basically from hell,” she said.

Nicholson has not only backed up her department hose in hand but battled and survived breast cancer, leading her to become a leading voice for cancer prevention measures in the department.

“This woman is tough, this woman is resilient, this woman is a leader,” Breed said Wednesday morning.

Nicholson lives in Berkeley. Wednesday, she told me she would move to San Francisco “soon,” which is required for fire chiefs under San Francisco’s city charter.

One of her top priorities will be addressing the homelessness crisis along with other city leaders, Nicholson said, as the emergency services the fire department oversees have been bombarded by requests.

“Our call volumes have gone way up due to the homelessness crisis,” Nicholson said.

In a San Francisco Fire Commission meeting held just after the fire chief announcement, fire commissioner Ken Cleaveland told Nicholson “I was the first member of the LGBT community on our commission. It is a great pleasure to see our first LGBT fire chief, perhaps among the first in the country.”

Earlier that day, Nicholson told reporters “throughout my job I’ve been a model for LGBT youth, and I’ll continue” to do so.

She was one of three top contenders for the job out of dozens of candidates.

Nicholson was viewed internally as the favorite of outgoing Chief Joanne Hayes-White, who has frequently warred with the fire union. But she was also viewed as the favorite of the union, San Francisco Firefighters Local 798.

“Deputy Chief Nicholson is a proven, well-respected leader who has risen through the ranks of the SFFD,” said Shon Buford, president of Local 798, in a statement. “San Francisco Firefighters have confidence in her ability to work collaboratively with our men and women in the field to guide our department in the right direction.”

Insiders told me Breed was under intense pressure from some in the union, though not necessarily its leadership, to pick Nicholson.

Local 798 battled heavily for Breed in the mayoral race, setting up independent expenditure committees to take large donations on Breed’s behalf. Fire union members also door-knocked heavily for Breed, who is a former fire commissioner.

Hayes-White announced her retirement last October. A favorite among Irish San Franciscans and long-time West Side dwellers, Hayes-White boasts one of the longer tenures among local chiefs in the last century — 15 years.

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