Chief admits shortcomings in Fire Department diversity

Supes hearing highlights issues with recruitment and promotions

The San Francisco Fire Department has fallen behind in its efforts to recruit and promote members of color, officials said Thursday.

The department has lost most of the Black battalion chiefs who once served, Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson said at a Board of Supervisors committee hearing on diversity among first responders.

She also said it was “unacceptable” that there are also just two Black women and 13 Black men out of about 200 people in the Emergency Medical Services Division at Station 49.

“We are not doing a good job in terms of recruiting a good amount of diverse candidates,” she added.

The news comes just days after a former firefighter and a marine engineer filed a lawsuit against The City alleging a “whites only” culture among the esteemed fireboat fleet.

The lawsuit, from marine engineer Lawrence Thomas and a former firefighter David Hawkins, alleged that the department refused to train or give Thomas work and wrongly removed Hawkins from the fleet.

Supervisor Ahsha Safai called for the hearing in the aftermath of civil unrest over the death of George Floyd and an increased urgency to right the wrongs of racial injustice.

“Today, we’re here to discuss this really important issue given the climate that we see in our streets,” Safai said. “Specifically, I’m referring to the most recent and overdue reckoning around race and structures of power that have oppressed and ostracized the most vulnerable in our society for a really long time.”

Supervisor Aaron Peskin said he hoped the department could increase diversity through promotional opportunities.

“When I was first a supervisor, the upper echelons of the fire department were actually much more diverse than they are today so I really hope that we can fix that as promotional opportunities arise,” said Peskin, who first became a supervisor in 2001.

Nicholson said barriers to promotion were among the issues she knew the department needed to address when she became the chief last year.

For instance, she said single parents could have trouble accessing off-site training.

“That is why we are putting together a succession plan and training in-house for all of our members to be able to get leadership and management and other types of training,” she said.

But SFFD has made strides since a consent decree required the department to diversify its ranks in 1988, when about 83 percent of the department was composed of white males. The first seven women reportedly joined the department in 1987.

Currently, just under half of the department is white, roughly 17 percent is Asian, nine percent is Black, nearly 17 percent is Latino and about 5.5 percent is Filipino. Meanwhile, women account for about 16 percent of the department.

In San Francisco, about 47 percent of the population is white, 5 percent is Black, 34 percent is Asian and 15 percent is Latino, according to census estimates from 2019. Women account for 49 percent of the population.

“I came in during the consent decree and I have seen the absolute value in that,” Nicholson said. “It has been an incredible career and experience for me to not [only] work with people that just look like me and just come from a background like me. I have learned how to be a better firefighter, a better paramedic [and] a better person.”

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Labor found the SFFD was one of the top five departments in the nation when it came to diversity, according to Nicholson.

To improve the number of diverse staff, the department appointed its first racial equity officer in February to recruit more diverse candidates and help develop long-term strategies for hirings and promotions.

nchan@sfexaminer.com

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