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...


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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.