Commanding Chief

Joanne Hayes-White ’86 is now SF’s first female fire chief

Though many consider her a role model for girls, Joanne Hayes-White ’86, who in January 2004 became San Francisco’s first female fire chief, thinks beyond that. “For my sons, to see their mom on a fire truck, and now leading the department, that’s a great message,” she says.

That spirit also motivates the department’s increased outreach, which she sees as critical in such a diverse city. She hopes that visibility will inspire trust and encourage the next generation of firefighters.

Hayes-White spent her years at SCU involved in the Santa Clara Community Action Program and playing intramural sports, while majoring in business and minoring in philosophy.

San Francisco began accepting female applicants for the fire department in 1987, and the very next year Hayes-White took the entrance exam. In 1990 she joined the SFFD, one of the first 10 women to be firefighters.

During the next 14 years, she worked at each of the city’s 41 station houses, held several different positions, was certified as an EMT, and became the department’s training director.

In January 2004, just days after he was sworn in as mayor, Gavin Newsom ’89 met with Hayes-White to discuss the department’s top spot. “He wanted someone who would be able to break out of the mold of what a fire chief is and what a fire chief looks like. I have a different skill set, which I think appealed to him.”

In the two years since becoming chief, she has helped the department to enhance its visibility, organizing outreach programs to local schools on subjects like asthma awareness, first aid, and disaster preparation

In addition to being the first woman to head the SFFD, Hayes-White is the only woman nationwide to head such a large public safety unit. As a department veteran and a local, she’s gained
credibility by knowing the layout of the city and most of her force very well. She has earned support from the community and the department, even in the face of challenging decisions.

“I wouldn’t ask anyone to do anything I wouldn’t be capable of doing myself,” she says.

Even now, as the boss, Hayes-White asks a lot of questions, which she has always done and always felt was encouraged, especially at Santa Clara. Questions, she explains, are not “bothersome.”

“It’s how you learn, it’s how you grow. Teamwork, collaboration, listening, respect for other people’s opinions…all that was reinforced throughout my education,” she says.

— Sarah Stanek is a writer/editor in SCU’s Office of Communications and Marketing.

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