Losing Our Fire Chief
I can feel my temper rising as I read the headline “Oakland fire chief to retire.” The SF Chronicle labels Oakland Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed as “embattled.” The Chronicle says the Ghost Ship warehouse fire “raised questions about “management and inspection procedures in the Fire Department.” Did these “questions” lead to Chief Reed’s resignation? I doubt it. I think it’s more likely that the people doing the questioning were the ones who propelled her retirement.
Chief Reed came to Oakland as our Fire Chief in 2012. Her hiring made history. Reed began her career in 1986 in San Jose as a firefighter. She rose through the ranks there, serving as a Captain, Battalion Chief, Deputy Chief and Assistant Chief. Chief Reed served in San Jose for 23 years before she came to Oakland as our Chief. I met her in 2014 when she was honored as one of the Powerful Women of the Bay.
Chief Reed is one of the field’s pioneers. She is applauded as a change agent in a traditionally chauvinist and racist profession. Black women just began to break through the doors of the fire service in the 1980s. Toni McIntosh is reportedly the first Black woman to become a full-time firefighter in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1976. The first known Black woman to become a Fire Chief is Rosemary R. Cloud who became a Fire Chief in East Point, Georgia in 2002.
Questions In Oakland
It is no secret that the local firefighters union is opposed to Chief Reed’s leadership and wants her out. The “questions” that arose after the tragic Ghost Ship fire merely added fuel to an already challenging situation. Some think Chief Reed’s desire to crack the “old boys network” inside the department’s leadership was too timidly executed. Others believe the union should have been more supportive of her efforts to change the culture and priorities of the department. Many question if Chief Reed is unfairly blamed for management problems she inherited from previous administrations. Rumors even say that after the Ghost Ship fire, the Mayor ordered Chief Reed not to speak to the media.
While the Fire Department was hit with the heaviest cuts in 2009 – before Chief Reed arrived -— the mayor and city council have n0t attempted to rebuild it with the same zeal with which they’ve approached the police and other city agencies. For example, the Fire Prevention Bureau needs an assistant fire marshal to oversees its inspectors. The City Council froze funding for this position in October 2008. The Council did not restore funding for the position until 2014, according to budget records. The funding for a designated Fire Marshall was not approved until 2014.
Oakland Post editor, Paul Cobb, sounded the alarm last year that Chief Reed is being hung out to dry. “There are indications that Mayor Libby Schaaf and the city administration may be trying to set up the Fire Department and the fire chief” to take the blame for the Ghost Ship disaster, the Post said in its Dec. 8 edition. Her resignation leaves a big obvious hole in the leadership of our City. Chief Reed is the only Black woman to head up a major City department.
Women in Fire Service
I have a bit of experience dealing with the challenges faced by women in the fire service. My client, Donna Rayon-Terrell is the first female firefighter in the Contra Costa County Fire Department. As a Black woman starting in the fire service in 1989, she faced the challenges of sex and race. A native of Richmond, Donna is part of a powerhouse fire family. She and her brother, Marcus Rayon, attended the same fire academy in 1989. Her daughter Mandisa Banjoko followed in her footsteps and joined Contra Costa Fire. Donna and Mandisa are probably the only mother-daughter team to serve in a major fire department at the same time.
As a “pioneer” in Contra Costa, Donna was repeatedly subjected to mistreatment and intentional acts of harassment by her male co-workers. Numerous male firefighters did not want to work with her because she was a woman. Male co-workers and supervisors often subjected her to belittling comments. Her coworkers isolated her, preventing her from forming critical bonds with members of her firefighting team. This endangered her safety and theirs. But Donna persisted as they tried to undermine her ability to be a successful firefighter. She overcame the racist and sexist culture to advance in her career. She held the rank of Captain when she retired in 2004.
Where Do We Go From Here?
How ironic that in Women’s History Month, we face the loss of a pioneering Black woman in Oakland. Black women are supposedly the hardest group to recruit into the fire service. Today, Contra Costa Fire has only 1 Black woman. The Richmond Fire Department has only 1 Black woman. While Oakland has a few more in its ranks, Chief Reed’s departure raises “questions” about what kind of opportunities other Black women will have in the future of this department. In my mind, those “questions” are just as important as any others.