Embattled SF fire chief’s future rests with Mayor Lee

Gary Reyes/Bay Area News Group/AP PhotoIn this Oct. 28

Gary Reyes/Bay Area News Group/AP PhotoIn this Oct. 28

Fire Department Chief Joanne Hayes-White may have lost the confidence of much of her department, but as long as she retains the support of one person — Mayor Ed Lee — The City's embattled fire chief won't be going anywhere.

Hayes-White, the first woman to lead the Fire Department and one of the longest-tenured chiefs in The City's history, has remained in the job amid calls to step down from her department's rank-and-file as well as from Supervisor London Breed, a former fire commissioner.

Firefighters union Local 798 as well as organizations representing department brass, women, and black and Latino minorities in the department have all sent letters to the mayor asking for a change in leadership, a movement sparked by plummeting ambulance response times.

The firefighters say Hayes-White has for years ignored concerns over shrinking ambulance staffing levels as well as mandatory unpaid overtime for some job classifications, union head Tom O'Connor said, leading to what's become an unprecedented and drawn-out public airing of grievances.

“We need 23 ambulances citywide to provide base-level services,” he said. “Some days, we have 14 or 15.”

In response to the public outcry, Hayes-White will undergo the first performance review of her 10-year career, a request made by The City's Fire Commission on Thursday.

Results could arrive sometime in November.

But unless Lee makes a move to remove Hayes-White, she appears likely to hang on as chief regardless of the outcome.

Under city law, the Fire Commission has the power to remove the chief — provided that the mayor first provides an official recommendation for removal.

The commission can also make an official finding to present to the mayor, such as one for removal.

But since all five commission members are appointed by the mayor, it is believed that the commission will wait for Lee to make the first move, observers say.

In the meantime, as The City hires more private ambulances to fill the gap, Breed says she may go to the voters to make changes to the Fire Department.

Similar to the City Charter provision that mandates a minimum staffing level of 1,971 officers in the Police Department — though that number is not always adhered to — Breed may introduce a charter amendment, subject to voter approval, to set minimum standards for ambulance equipment and staffing levels, she told The San Francisco Examiner on Friday.

Changes to the Fire Commission — such as giving the Board of Supervisors appointment power, similar to the Police Commission — may also be in the works, she said.

“This is not being handled fast enough,” she said. “This is not about any one individual, it's about public safety … and it's about fixing the problem sooner rather than later.”

Hayes-White has taken some of the blame for a rise in “medic to follow” calls, in which a firetruck responds to a medical emergency and an ambulance arrives later, as soon as one is available.

There were 114 “medic to follow” calls in September, including 54 Code 3, or highest-priority, calls.

That's a big improvement from the 652 “medic to follow” calls in August, which included 320 Code 3 calls, according to Fire Department data.

The City's ambulance gap was readily apparent last week when a Sunset man likely suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning waited 18 minutes for an ambulance Wednesday morning. He later died, most likely from cardiac arrest, fire officials said.

As chief, Hayes-White earns a $320,000 salary along with a housing allowance.

A request for comment from the Mayor's Office was not immediately returned Monday.

Bay Area NewsJoanne Hayes-WhiteSF Fire DepartmentSFFD

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