S.F. Fire Department Critic Calls Again for Chief's Dismissal

The facade of the San Francisco Fire Department's old Station 1, on Howard Street.  (Thomas Hawk/Flickr)

San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White is facing a new call for her removal following recent disclosures that her department has failed to complete hundreds of fire investigations over the past four years.

London Breed, a past Hayes-White critic and president of the city's Board of Supervisors, says that the chief should be held accountable for the department's shortcomings, including the backlog of 300 open fire investigations. The long delay in completing those inquiries has raised questions about staffing in the department's arson task force, which was reduced during the recession.

"Overall, I like the chief. I think she's a great person," Breed said in an interview. "I just don't necessarily agree that she's the best person to run the department."

Breed said if she were mayor, "I would hire a new chief."

San Francisco Board of Supervisors President London Breed.
San Francisco Board of Supervisors President London Breed. (Sara Bloomberg/KQED)

The power to hire and fire the chief resides with the mayor and Fire Commission.

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"I'd like to see a lot more from the mayor and a lot more done from the commission to really hold the chief accountable for doing her job well so the department is moving in the right direction," Breed said.

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee has yet to comment on the fire investigations backlog or Breed's remarks.

Breed, a former fire commissioner, questioned Hayes-White's leadership last year over the department's slow ambulance response times.

Lt. Mindy Talmadge, Fire Department spokeswoman, says the chief's not going anywhere.

"Chief Hayes-White has always and, will continue to, maintain her professionalism as she focuses on running the Fire Department," Talmdage wrote in an email.

Responding to questions about the investigation backlog and staffing for the arson task force, Talmadge noted Hayes-White led the department through the economic downturn which affected the agency's budget.

"Our first priority is to protect lives and property therefore our administrative staffing had to be cut. Staffing at the Bureau of Fire Investigation did take a temporary hit," Talmadge wrote. "She knew it would be temporary and that we had to get through the financially challenging years as best we could, without sacrificing our first priority."

With the city's economy now surging, the Fire Department is getting more funding and rebuilding its staffing. Under the new budget, the department will have nine full-time investigators and a new supervisor.

Those additions should help, said Supervisor Mark Farrell, a supporter of Hayes-White, who chairs the board's Finance and Budget Committee.

"We cannot make any excuses for what's happened in the past," Farrell said in an interview. "But, I'm encouraged that the budget ... increases staffing significantly."