Zen and the Art of Fire Fighting

Retiring San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White ’86 ushered in a new era of diversity, empathetic leadership, and rolling with the punches when she became the first woman to head the department 15 years ago.

Zen and the Art of Fire Fighting
Retiring San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White ’86 was one of the first women to head-up a big city department. / Image by Joanne Lee.

It’s fitting that the only reading material in the clutter-free conference room of the San Francsico Fire Department headquarters is a dogeared copy of Leadership Aikido: 6 Business Practices to Turn Around Your Life. In it, author John O’Neil uses the concepts of Akido, a Japanese martial art—a sort of self-defense, Zen philosophy mash-up that emphasizes adaptability and compassion over power—to outline effective leadership skills.

Principal to these practices are cultivating self-knowledge and letting values drive decisions—ideas that have guided the person who’s run this place for 15 years: outgoing SFFD Chief Joanne Hayes-White ’86, the first woman to lead the 153-year-old department.

“My dad always used to say, ‘Don’t surround yourself with people who are just like you,’” she says in an interview prior to her May 5 retirement. “I always heed that advice. I like a diversity of opinion, to be around people who aren’t afraid to tell me what they think.”

San Francisco Fire Department Seal
Hayes-White was in the first class of San Francisco firefighters that included women./ Image of the seal courtesy WikiCommons

Empathy is the key, Hayes-White says. “It’s about assuring people that I do want to hear their perspective. In me, they’ve found someone who will listen, who will hear them out. If they put forward an idea that’s better than mine, I have no problem going with them.”

That’s not to say she’s afraid to make big decisions. This job—and any leadership job, really—is not a popularity contest. “You have to make tough decisions that won’t always please everybody,” she says. “I pride myself in gathering all the facts I can before making a call. But I will make the call. It doesn’t serve anyone to have a leader that’s too malleable or wishy-washy.”

The most challenging thing about being boss? You can’t make everyone like you, she says. “Good leaders need to have thick skin and not take things personal. And it got personal a few years ago,” Hayes-White says.

She’s referring to a very public vote of no confidence from fire crews and battalion chiefs in 2014. Union leaders asked then-Mayor Ed Lee, who died in 2017, to remove her from office. He refused.

In an ABC-7 News segment at the time, Hayes-White candidly acknowledges that her management style had been called into question; she didn’t advocate fiercely enough for a bigger slice of the financial pie, leading to fewer resources and too-long response times of ambulances. “I’m not someone who slams her hands down on the table. I don’t think that works. But [I get] there’s frustration,” she says in the video clip.

So in an effort to improve communication between leadership and rank and file, Hayes-White invited the department of more than 1,800 members—1,200 of whom she’s hired—to air their grievances. And, in turn, she was able to share the bureaucratic hurdles she faced in city government. “I think we were able to provide more details as to what the expectation is once we get our marching orders from City Hall,” she says.

Progress was a slow burn, but news articles in the months following the vote track improvements including the city investing in more ambulances and paramedics.

Today, Hayes-White is happy to retire on solid footing. “I’m proud of what this department has accomplished in the 15 years I’ve been chief,” she says. “And I’m grateful to be closing out my tenure on my own terms.”

Finding Her Path

Joanne Hayes was born in San Francisco on February 29, 1964. “I’m only 13-and-a-half,” the Leap Year baby laughs. She was the youngest of four children born to Thomas—an Irish immigrant who ran a successful plaster and real estate development business in San Francisco—and Patricia—a homemaker.

Thomas had a sixth-grade education while Patricia scrapped her own college dreams as a young teen to care for her siblings after her mother’s death. “When my parents got together, the deal was to do everything they could to make sure their children got a good education,” Hayes-White says.

She grew up a devout Catholic. She still attends Mass every Sunday with her 93-year-old mother, to whom she lives next door in the city’s Lakeside neighborhood. A natural athlete, she played volleyball, basketball, and softball at Catholic grade and high schools. She followed her older sister, Patricia ’83, to Santa Clara University. Ironically, her four years at the Jesuit university were among the handful over the past 40 years when she didn’t have to wear a uniform.

“In [St. Stephen] grammar school, it was like a little sailor dress. Then there was a plaid outfit at Mercy High School. Then there’s this for 29 years,” she says, pointing to her crisp white shirt and tie covered by a sharp navy blazer very much resembling a Navy captain.

Hayes-White remembers her time at SCU fondly: “I thought it offered the best of both worlds. I’d get that classic college experience but not be too far away from home and my parents that I couldn’t come home for the weekend,” she says.

Most of all, she loved the small, beautiful campus and feeling like, as she did back home in San Francisco, that she knew most people by name. “I liked the sense of community at Santa Clara,” she says. “It was really tight-knit.”

Upon graduating with a bachelor’s in business, Hayes-White moved back to San Francisco and got a job as an HR specialist at a local hospital. But the office grind—entering work before the sun had yet to pierce the fog, leaving work after it had set beyond the bay—wasn’t fulfilling. “I didn’t feel like it was a great fit. I didn’t feel like I was making a difference,” she says.

About two years in, she heard the San Francisco Fire Department was diversifying its ranks. This followed a string of discrimination lawsuits and a federal judge in 1987 ordering the organization to hire more minorities and women. A New York Times article described how, in 1987, even though women had been allowed to apply for the fire department for 11 years, none had ever been hired.

Hayes-White press conference
Hayes-White at a press conference with San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera in 2011. / Image courtesy Dennis Herrera

The settlement set hiring goals to raise minority representation to 40 percent of the force, and female representation to 10 percent.

Something clicked for Hayes-White. She saw excitement and adventure and no two days that looked alike. She saw a chance to serve her hometown, the city she loves so deeply. She saw a job that was physical and emphasized teamwork. “I loved the physicality of the job,” she says. “The needing to be physically, mentally, and emotionally strong—that appealed to me.”

So she quit her 9-to-5 and entered the training academy in April 1990, as one of six women in a class of 36. Her parents were less than thrilled.

“They were concerned about me, because it’s a dangerous job and mostly men do it. But from a practical standpoint, they’d invested a lot in my education and, to them, firefighting is kind of blue-collar work.”

Despite being “hugely skeptical,” they remained supportive, she says. And it wasn’t like the academy didn’t present any academic challenges. “I had to learn a lot of things I didn’t necessarily have an aptitude for, like hydraulics, pounds per square inch, literally fire science,” she says. There was also the medical stuff. “I became a certified emergency medical technician…About 75 percent of the time we go out the door, it’s for medical calls, whether someone’s involved in an auto collision or having shortness of breath.”

Hired as a full-time firefighter after 14 weeks of training, Hayes-White says she loved the work immediately. “It’s hard to describe the feeling you get when you go on scene and 99 percent of the time, everyone wants you to be there.”

Lone Woman

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.

Lauren Loftus is a writer and editor. Her work has appeared in PHOENIX magazine, The Washington Post, The Arizona Republic, Leafly, OZY.com, and elsewhere. She is Assistant Director of Storytelling at Santa Clara University.

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