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Union says experienced firefighters knocked out of running for fire chief job

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SF Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White (Mike Koozmin, SF Examiner file photo 2015)

On Guard column header Joe

Should the next fire chief be one of San Francisco’s top firefighters?

The firefighters union seems to think so, but alleges in a letter to the Fire Commission that the Fire Department’s “most experienced field suppression chiefs” were knocked out of the running for fire chief.

San Francisco Firefighters Local 798 president-elect Shon Buford wrote that local firefighters with the most experience in the field — those who have actually fought fires — had their job applications tossed out before any interviews were even held.

Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White announced her retirement in October last year, a post she held for nearly fifteen years. She’s been with the department since 1990.

SEE RELATED: SF Fire Chief Hayes-White announces retirement

Since Hayes-White announced her departure, about 35 applicants have thrown their hats into the ring, sources told me, a number that was winnowed down to about 11 at a December 19 fire commission meeting. The commission will begin interviewing them this Friday, and in a few weeks is expected to forward three to four candidates to Mayor London Breed.

Ken Cleveland, president of the fire commission, said he couldn’t respond to the specific allegations in the union’s letter since the application process is conducted in closed session, away from the public eye.

But, he said, “We have a number of very qualified people who can fulfill the position of fire chief.”

While that may be true, Local 798 seems concerned those applicants aren’t as experienced as they could be.

“It has come to our attention that several of our highest ranking and most experienced Field Suppression Chiefs have applied but have not progressed to the Commission Interview process,” Buford’s December 29 letter reads. “As an experienced union officer, I personally find this to be very disturbing since these Field Suppression Chiefs most certainly possess the expertise and experience that the application clearly requires.”

According to the fire chief application, the ideal candidate should have “superior performance in the operation of fire services at a senior level in a fire department that serves an urban population of at least 350,000 residents,” the union wrote.

From my read of Buford’s letter, he’s not pushing for these folks to be chief necessarily — he’s just concerned none made it to the interview level. That concern is shared by Robert Boudoures, a retired assistant chief with the fire department.

Boudoures told me one of the “strongest” division chiefs he knows was knocked out of the running without an interview. I verified this but will withhold his name for privacy reasons.

“He’s managed a lot of divisions, especially with high rises. Those on the list, I doubt they’ve ever managed a high-rise (fire) before,” Boudoures said.

Fire suppression experience is necessary, Boudoures told me, because “the reality is, during a major event, the fire department has to interact with a lot of other departments. If that individual doesn’t have a grasp of having commanded a large incident in The City, a large earthquake, nine-eleven, whatever, there’s going to be some chaos.”

Boudoures should know. He was active in the department during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, when water was scarce in the Marina District as the ground underneath the neighborhood liquified and fires raged.

“Loma Prieta didn’t create as much damage as it could have, it could have been a lot worse,” he said.

And San Francisco may be a lot worse off, he said, if someone experienced enough to handle our next Loma Prieta isn’t in the running for fire chief.

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at joe@sfexaminer.com, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at facebook.com/FitztheReporter.

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