FIREHOUSE INTERVIEW: FIRE CHIEF JOANNE HAYES-WHITE San Francisco, CA, Fire Department

Firehouse: The San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD) is down about 300 firefighters. Is there a plan for the future to hire new firefighters and promote EMTs?

Hayes-White: In the past few years, we have been unable to match retirements with new hires due to a challenging economy. Thus, there has been a heavier reliance on overtime. While this has proven to be more fiscally efficient, we are now at a point where it is not operationally prudent. Fortunately, we have a mayor, Edwin M. Lee, who has prioritized public safety and is a great supporter of the San Francisco Fire Department. Beginning last year, we hired a class of firefighters. Our plan is to hire a class every year for the next six years.

We have also been able to staff up our Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Division with single-function emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedics. Our upcoming firefighter academy will be comprised of some of our EMS Division members who will cross-train to become firefighters.

 

Firehouse: I understand a new firehouse will be built for Station 1, another new station near China Basin and several others will be torn down and rebuilt. Will more stations be rebuilt or renovated?

Hayes-White: The City and County of San Francisco is experiencing continued growth within its 49 square miles. In an effort to keep up with this growth and fulfill our mission, we will be adding a new fire station in the China Basin/Mission Bay area, which is home to our San Francisco Giants and future home to the Golden State Warriors and UCSF Women and Children’s Hospital. In addition, we engaged in a public-private partnership to move out of the quarters of Fire Station 1 and into a brand-new facility a few blocks away. Station 1’s current facility will be used to expand the Museum of Modern Art. In exchange for this property, we will be moving into a privately financed, state-of-the-art firehouse later this year – a win/win.

The voters of San Francisco have been supportive of public safety as well. We have been the beneficiaries of several general obligation bond measures that have allowed us to seismically retrofit, renovate and repair many of our aging facilities. Two of our stations will be rebuilt entirely. Very exciting times for the SFFD!

 

Firehouse: Apparatus purchasing has been slowed. Is the purchase of new apparatus needed and how will the purchasing be made adhering to the budget?

Hayes-White: With the downturn in the economy, our ability to purchase apparatus has taken a hit and not allowed us to keep up with our apparatus replacement plan. We have secured funding over the next two fiscal years to purchase 10 ambulances, 10 triple combination pumpers and 4 aerial trucks. This will go a long way in getting us back on track.

 

Firehouse: Has the EMS workload in the city increased? Is there enough staffing and ambulances to keep up with the daily demand for service? Do you work with private hospitals to cover the city?

Hayes-White: EMS workload and overall call volume have been trending upward over the past few years. Total calls for service in 2011 were approximately 120,000; with the ratio of fire to EMS calls running 35%:65%. On average, the daily supply and demand for ambulances is met. Surges in the system are variable in cause and cannot be readily predicted unless historical data exists such as for some special events. When these surges occur, there is not a delay in the arrival of advanced life support (ALS), as 29 to 35 of SFFD engines per day are ALS and have a firefighter/paramedic onboard. They provide immediate assessment and advanced life support until an ALS ambulance arrives on the scene.

Our system is not a hospital-based response system. The EMS system in San Francisco is a dynamically deployed, shift-based system. The City and County of San Francisco has been the predominant provider of ambulance/911 EMS response since 1867. The SFFD is the majority provider of EMS response and transport. There are two private-ambulance advanced life support providers that work with the SFFD (American Medical Response and King American).

 

Firehouse: San Francisco Engine 1 is listed in our National Run Survey as the busiest engine company in the country, logging 10,367 runs in 2011 (see the July issue). Engine 1 and other companies in the city do a tremendous amount of running. Are there any plans to add units or other measures to keep ahead of their call volume?

Hayes-White: Our downtown corridor has a consistently high call volume. The population in San Francisco is roughly 800,000 residents, but during the workweek, this nearly doubles to 1.5 million. We are looking forward to adding an engine and truck company in the China Basin/Mission Bay Area with the opening of Station 4 in 2014 to assist with the heavy call volume.

 

Firehouse: With the 2010 pipeline explosion and fire in nearby San Bruno and other daily dealings with the local gas company, what kind of relationship does the department have with the utility?

Hayes-White: Immediately following the Sept. 9, 2010, pipeline incident in San Bruno, a city approximately 11 miles south of the heart of San Francisco, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom called on me to form, develop and chair a San Francisco Utility Infrastructure and Safety Review Team. I meet regularly with both gas and electric executives to continually advocate for improved communication and coordination. We have also requested an investment in modernization of equipment and technology and joint training sessions.

 

Firehouse: With manpower being low, does the department require members to work mandatory overtime to keep up staffing?

Hayes-White: The San Francisco Fire Department does have a mandatory-overtime policy that we have had to rely upon more frequently due to reduced staffing. This is not an ideal situation operationally nor from an employee perspective. However, with our staffing plan in place to hire a class of firefighters every year for the next six years, our reliance on mandatory overtime will reduce greatly.

 

Firehouse: Has the department been able to receive federal grants and how have they been used?

Hayes-White: The San Francisco Fire Department is grateful to have received millions of dollars in funding from the following federal grants: Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI), Port Security Grant Program (PSGP), Public Safety Interoperability Communication Grant Program (PSIC) and Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program (AFG). The grants have been utilized for equipment, training, exercises, planning, standardized operations guidelines development, communications enhancements, information/intelligence, CBRNE (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosives) response, on-site incident management, critical logistics distribution, responder safety, WMD (weapons of mass destruction)/hazmat response, urban search and rescue, marine response and emergency medical services.

Firehouse: How does the department protect a great extra number of people when there are special events, such as when the President comes to town, Fleet Week and the recent U.S. Open golf championship?

Hayes-White: San Francisco hosts several high-occupancy special events every year. In addition to presidential and dignitary visits, Fleet Week and the U.S. Open, and two professional sporting franchises, other events that the city has hosted include Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game, the World Series games and parade and a dozen or so parades annually. We are now gearing up for the 34th America’s Cup.

All of these events require tremendous coordination and cooperation among multiple agencies. The San Francisco Fire Department participates in unified special-event planning meetings that involve all city agencies impacted for the event along with private security and EMS providers that may be contracted for the event. Once the nature and occupancy for the event are evaluated, an Event Action Plan (EAP) is developed and implemented to ensure the proper amount of SFFD fire and EMS assets are assigned. The EAP is coordinated with the Department of Emergency Management and Bureau of Fire Inspection for event permitting.

 

Firehouse: How does the department keep up with medical billing?

Hayes-White: The San Francisco Fire Department has a contracted medical billing vendor. The vendor maintains contact with Medicare, Medi-Cal, private hospitals and government entities. The vendor analyzes and tracks industry standards and changes in legislation.

The vendor also ties in to our Ecru system, the electronic charting devices that ambulance crews use. Data from calls is uploaded to billing servers within 12 hours of the incident and the bill can be generated within 24 hours of the incident. The earlier the submission, the stronger the chance for maximum reimbursement. The San Francisco Fire Department’s fee structure is approved through the city’s legislative branch of government, which is comprised of an 11-member Board of Supervisors.

 

Firehouse: How has the department dealt with the potential for a tremendous amount of fire spread with winds and the close proximity of wood-frame dwellings with horizontal and vertical fire spread to the members?

Hayes-White: Fighting fire is always a challenge. In addition, San Francisco is a city built on a hill with narrow, winding streets, aging wood-framed structures, overhead wires, high winds and zero lot-line separation in many areas. In order to combat these challenges, the men and women of the San Francisco Fire Department pride themselves on making an aggressive attack. We rely on a solid training foundation and constantly work as a team to hone our skills, emphasizing our safety every step of the way. We make use of our topography by utilizing a gravity-fed Auxiliary Water Supply System (AWSS), a dedicated high-pressure system used to augment our domestic system. We also have specialized units, such as heavy rescue, hazmat, confined space and marine vessels, to enhance our abilities to save lives, suppress fires and minimize property loss.

 

Firehouse: There have been promotions of all ranks several times in the past few years. How have you been able to promote so many?

Hayes-White: One of the things I am most proud of during my tenure as chief of department has been the ability to promote well-deserving members into all ranks. Due to litigation, there had been a significant period of time ranging from 10-23 years, depending on the rank, where promotional exams had not been given. This led to a “Band-Aid” solution of “Like Work Like Pay” and acting assignments. While we made it work, there was no sense of permanency. Since 2006, we have held nine exams and promoted five assistant chiefs, 51 battalion chiefs, 136 captains, 16 EMS captains, 229 lieutenants, eight fire prevention lieutenants, four arson investigators and 28 inspectors. This has led to greater accountability, consistency, ownership and performance in all ranks. The department is back on track with a promotional examination interval for all ranks every three to four years.

 

Firehouse: You have worked as fire chief for nearly nine years, for two mayors, which is almost unheard of. Is it challenging to work with a mayor, the staff and the County Board of Supervisors?

Hayes-White: As a native San Franciscan, it has been an honor and privilege to serve in the San Francisco Fire Department since 1990, starting out as a firefighter and now as chief of department. The rewards associated with this position and leading the dedicated men and women are countless and humbling. It has been an incredible opportunity, but also a huge responsibility. The weight of the line-of-duty deaths of Lieutenant Vincent Perez and Firefighter/Paramedic Anthony Valerio (from burn injuries sustained at a residential fire) last year will be ever present.

However, I remain committed to leading the San Francisco Fire Department and setting the course for our future. I am proud of our accomplishments along the way, including a fully integrated fire-based EMS delivery, restoration of promotional exams, development and implementation of a random alcohol and drug testing policy, a fleet replacement plan, a vibrant Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (NERT) Program and the San Francisco Fire Firefighters In Safety Education, a successful educational outreach program to local schools.

All of this could not be accomplished without a solid working relationship with our five-member Fire Commission, our partners in labor and with the executive and legislative branches of government. My approach has always been one of open, honest and direct communication and a team-oriented approach. This has served me well in my nearly nine years as chief of department.

 

Firehouse: Within the past two years, the department has provided fire protection for the Presidio, former federal military location near the Golden Gate Bridge. With this area and Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, will the demand for service keep increasing?

Hayes-White: The San Francisco Fire Department has taken on greater responsibility and an increased call volume with the protection of Treasure Island and Presidio. As such, we have staffed up in both locations to provide medical and fire service into both areas which experience heavy tourist activity.

 

Firehouse: With the budgets the way they are and low manpower, is the department still able to deploy resources to adjoining, nearby or long-distance mutual aid areas?

Hayes-White: The San Francisco Fire Department remains committed to being an integral part of the State of California’s Master Mutual Aid Plan and assisting our neighbors when in need. While our first priority is to protect the residents of and visitors to San Francisco and ensure appropriate staffing, we have approximately 25% of members who are wildland trained and ready for deployment, in addition to five rigs dedicated for mutual aid deployment. n

 

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