S.F. Firefighter Leaders Say Morale Is a Problem -- and the Chief Should Go

A San Francisco Fire Department Engine 13, stationed in the Financial District.  (Alexander Russy/Flickr)

Leaders of several groups representing San Francisco firefighters say that more than a year after a no-confidence vote in Chief Joanne Hayes-White, morale continues to ebb amid concerns over staffing, operational problems and what's widely described as the chief's unresponsiveness to rank-and-file concerns.

But Hayes-White says she believes the department is on the right track, and all indications are that she still enjoys the support of the city officials who really matter in her case: Mayor Ed Lee and members of the city's Fire Commission.

Over the last 16 months the department has come under criticism for doing a weak job of documenting fire safety violations in the city's older apartment buildings after a series of deadly fires. It has also come under scrutiny for moving too slowly to reduce a backlog of hundreds of fire investigations going back several years.

Firefighters and EMS officials say they are struggling with outdated or ineffective equipment, including firetrucks, ambulances and cardiac monitors that are in need of constant repair.

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One high-profile example of the equipment problems: the failure of the department's "jaws of life" devices after last November's tour bus crash in Union Square.

The complex tools, used to cut open vehicles in which victims are trapped, were unable to cut through the high-grade steel of vehicles involved in the accident.

Last June, a civil grand jury report found, among other things, the Fire Department's emergency medical response times fail to meet state standards, in part because of "a chronic lack of serviceable ambulances." The grand jury also found that half the department's ambulance fleet exceeded its expected service life of 10 years and that the agency lacks a strategic plan for replacing ambulances and other emergency equipment.

Leaders of several groups that represent rank-and-file firefighters said in a series of recent interviews that these and other issues -- such as a January dispute over whether individual firefighters would be allowed to buy special badges commemorating Super Bowl 50 -- continue to depress morale in the city's firehouses.

"Morale has been at rock bottom and continues to be a rock bottom," said Tom O'Connor, president of Local 798, which represents the city's firefighters.

The union and eight employee groups sent a letter to Mayor Ed Lee in the fall of 2014, calling on him to fire Hayes-White over concerns that the city's ambulances were not responding to emergencies fast enough.

That prompted the city to invest in more ambulances and paramedics -- steps that didn't satisfy the union.

"We shouldn't be managing the department by crisis, and we shouldn't be managing the department by headlines," O'Connor said. "We've been met with silence from City Hall. We can't sit on our hands while these policy failures continue to happen."

Since the no-confidence vote, morale has probably gone down even more, said Kevin Smith, president of the San Francisco Black Firefighters Association.

"We're basically putting Band-Aids on what I perceive is a broken system," Smith said. "People are disenchanted and morale continues to stay low because of our leadership issues."

Improvements at the department happen at a snail's pace, said Mariano Elias, president of Los Bomberos, which represents the city's Latino firefighters. Hayes-White is out of touch with the rank and file and rarely visits firefighters at their stations, Elias said.

"I feel like she's almost hiding behind the walls of headquarters, where firefighters rarely go," Elias said.

"The morale still sucks," said Mike Whooley, a Fire Department paramedic captain who leads the EMS Officers Association. "There's a sense of hopelessness that nothing is going to change. We do not have people with any level of vision at our upper administration. In this department we are able to accomplish an excellent mission in spite of the lack of leadership."

There are not enough firefighters and paramedics, said Keith Baraka, a firefighter who chairs SF ResQ, which advocates for LGBTQ members of the department.

"When their ability to do their job is hampered by inadequate personnel or constant mandatory overtime, it really adds undue stress and strain to a job rife with those things already," Baraka said in an email.

Supervisor London Breed, president of the Board of Supes and a former member of the Fire Commission who has repeatedly called for Hayes-White to be replaced, says she sympathizes with rank-and-file firefighters and their frustrations.

"They want to save lives and when they run up against challenges because folks at the top aren't thinking about the future or thinking about the needs of the members who are out there, they run into a lot of problems and there's a lot of frustration," Breed said.

Hayes-White has been with the department for more than a quarter of a century -- that last 12 years as chief. When she was appointed by Mayor Gavin Newsom in 2004, she became the first woman to lead a major U.S. fire department.

Hayes-White says has no plans to step down. She acknowledges some of the department's equipment problems, but described efforts to have her replaced as "personality conflicts."

The single biggest problem at the department is its lack of a unified voice, she said.

"There can be a confusing message when it becomes personal and there's an assault on one person," she said. "Certainly in a position of leadership, you're not going always please everyone."

The chief says the department has been in a rebuilding phase since the economic downturn led to budget cuts and staff reductions several years ago.  Hayes-White describes her agency as a model for the nation, emphasizing its financial health and the diversity in its ranks.

The chief says she plans to add more firefighters and increase the department's truck and engine fleet and points to improved ambulance response times and a reduction in the department's investigation backlog as proof of progress.

That backlog, which had reached more than 400 cases, is down to around 200, fire officials say. But, the agency's slow pace in completing probes into fires is expected to be a focal point of a planned hearing called by Supervisor David Campos.

The Fire Department is one of San Francisco's largest agencies and it uses a large share of general fund money. Its budget for the current fiscal year is more than $356 million, which is $12 million more than the year before. Hayes-White says more funds will go toward academies to train new firefighters and paramedics, improvement in emergency medical services and investments in new equipment.

Mayor Ed Lee has not wavered -- at least publicly -- in his support of Hayes-White. But he says he wants to know why the firefighter groups and the chief don't get along.

"We need our Fire Department to respond to every single emergency, to be there when we need them, to be as a team," Lee said.

Last year, for the first time in the department's 150-year history, the Fire Commission conducted a performance evaluation of its chief, prompted by the no-confidence vote and the agency's slow ambulance response times.

That report was sent to the mayor's office and prompted meetings between the mayor and every member of the commission to discuss Hayes-White, fire commissioner Stephen Nakajo said during a Board of Supervisors Rules Committee hearing last month.  Members of the commission told the chief during a closed-door session what they expected her to do to improve her performance, Nakajo said.

During that March 24 rules committee hearing, Supervisor Breed asked Nakajo if the relationship between the chief and the rank and file could be repaired.

"I hope so," Nakajo answered. "I pray for it."

"The issues of morale, I hear it, I see some of it, but I also see a lot of support as well," Nakajo said, adding that he plans to spend the next several years working to bring the two sides together.

The commission plans to begin its second evaluation of Hayes-White over the next few months, according to Francee Covington, its president.

However, the panel does not plan to release its reports on Hayes-White, Covington said in an interview, adding that repeated calls to replace the chief do not concern her.

"Just like any workplace, sometimes morale is up, and sometimes it's down," she said.

Covington said the commission would like to know what Hayes-White's vision is for the department's future.

"Twenty-first century firefighting is very different from firefighting the way it's been done in the past," Covington said. "What is it that she sees on the horizon that we need to plan for?"

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Alex Emslie of KQED News contributed to this report.

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