When Hayes-White was hired, there was a requirement that firefighters be at least 5 feet 8 inches tall. “I just barely made it,” says the 5’8” freckled strawberry blonde.
“Someone’s idea of a typical firefighter might be a 6-foot-4 man but I’ve seen time and again where having a blended team is better,” Hayes-White says. “Say, for example, you have a confined space you’re trying to pull someone out of, or you’re trying to hoist someone through a window. Sometimes, having a smaller, more agile person—man or woman—makes more sense.”
There were a lot of fires her first few weeks on the job. During one, she remembers, “I was up with two seasoned veterans on a roof adjacent to where there had been a house fire. The roof felt soft and spongy, which meant the fire might’ve traveled over. I thought as a new person, I’d follow and not say much but in training, we were taught to always trust our instincts. So I was assertive and said, ‘This isn’t safe.’ They agreed with me and we got off, and about 10 minutes later the roof collapsed.”
Within eight years of becoming a firefighter, Hayes-White had worked her way up to assistant deputy chief and was raising three sons, mostly as a single mom. In 2004, she was appointed chief by fellow SCU grad and current governor of California Gavin Newsom ’89, who’d just been elected mayor of San Francisco. “It was a bold move for him,” Hayes-White says. “All my predecessors had decades of experience, they were older—only a year or two away from retirement.”
In addition to Hayes-White, Newsom appointed several women to high-level city jobs, including Heather Fong as the first Asian-American woman to lead the San Francisco Police Department. Though he downplayed gender as a significant factor in his decision making, Newsom did acknowledge the historic momentousness of the decisions.
“At the end of the day, I was looking for the best, but part of what I mean by the best is extending the definition of what a chief of police and fire chief should be,” Newsom told the Associated Press. “I’m not sure it’s even ‘kinder and softer,’ but a capacity to balance an extraordinary amount and at the same time recognize the importance of developing relationships.”
Hayes-White maintains that she didn’t feel much discrimination in her early days as chief because of her gender, though she acknowledges that there were times it felt like operating in a fishbowl. “Everybody was watching,” she says, “but I was determined to be equal to, if not better than, the men who preceded me.”
Today, the San Francisco Fire Department is one of the most diverse in the country, with non-white employees making up 52 percent of the staff. Women, meanwhile, make up about 15 percent. The distinction is what Hayes-White calls her proudest accomplishment. “We changed the face of this department. We now have a very good representation on staff that reflects the community we’re serving,” she says.
As for any advice to incoming Chief Jeanine Nicholson, appointed by Mayor London Breed in March, Hayes-White offers this perspective: “You need to be a good communicator and a good listener. You need to be someone who’s fair and consistent. I wouldn’t ask anyone in this department to do something I wouldn’t do myself. So people that work with me work really hard because I work really hard.”
When she steps down on May 5, Hayes-White isn’t exactly sure what’s next. “I don’t see myself fully retiring yet but I’m not going to commit to anything yet,” she says. What she does know for sure—she’s taking the summer off to spend time with her mom and sons, Riley ’16, Logan, and Sean.
Oh, and she wants to make a book out of the journals she’s kept over her 30 years on the job. “I have a title already,” she says, smiling. “Taking the Heat: My journey out of the fire.”