Female firefighters in Oakland take the heat, defy stereotypes
on March 23, 2012
On March 5, the highest-ranking woman in San Jose’s fire department, Teresa Deloach-Reed, replaced Oakland’s interim fire chief, Mark Hoffman. She became the first black woman to lead a major fire department in the United States.
In San Jose’s Fire Department, Deloach-Reed quickly rose through the ranks, becoming the first woman in the department promoted to fire engineer, then fire captain, and battalion chief. She was appointed interim deputy fire chief in 2008 and assistant fire chief in 2009. Deloach-Reed worked in San Jose’s fire department for nearly 25 years before coming to Oakland.
As of 2010, less than 4 percent of U.S. firefighters were women, and just over 6 percent were black, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Oakland’s fire department currently has 419 sworn personnel, of which 377 are male and 43 are women. Of those women, 13 are African American, 24 are white, 3 are Hispanic, and 3 are Asian or Filipino.
“Oakland and San Francisco were always seen as fire departments that had a lot of women,” Deloach-Reed said. “We had a force in San Jose close to 750 and at the most may have had 35 women.”
With the dissolution of the Oakland Redevelopment Agency, the city is dealing with budget cuts and layoffs. Fire department officials are not looking to increase staffing, but rather to maintain the staffing they already have. “The whole redevelopment issue came up and they [the city council] had to rebalance their budget,” Deloach-Reed said. “Luckily the fire department was not affected by that budget. We were able to get through without personal losses during that period.”
“We may not be that safe the next time around,” she added.
Deloach-Reed’s appointment to her position comes at a pivotal moment for diversity in fire departments across the country. A federal court order in 2011 instructed the Chicago Fire Department to add 111 black firefighters by March 2012 after finding that discriminatory practices were used to evaluate applicants’ scores for a 1995 entrance exam. There is more pressure on fire departments throughout the nation to be more inclusive in their hiring. In the past year, fire departments in New Haven, Saint Louis, and New Hudson, NJ, have been hit with lawsuits because of discrimination. In New York City, a federal judge ruled that a court-appointed monitor would be installed to oversee the department’s recruitment of minorities.
Oakland’s ratio for women to men is more than three times the national average. “Overall we [women] are encouraged to apply,” said Stephanie Cockrill, an Oakland firefighter. “I don’t think they discourage anyone, but it is a physical job and you have to be prepared mentally.”
Deloach-Reed is aware of her predecessors. The first known female firefighter in the United States was Molly Williams, a black slave who worked New York City’s Oceanus Engine Company #11 in 1818. “That means a lot,” Deloach-Reed said. “Women have been in the fire service since Molly and when you talk about the modern fire service black women have been involved for years.”
It’s a collection of women she’s now a part of. “I remember the celebration when Rosemary Cloud became the first black women to run a fire department [in East Point, GA] and then there was Debra Pryor over in Berkeley and Toni Dixon [Decatur, GA] and Teresa Everett [College Park, GA]. For me to be appointed to this position I see it as standing on their shoulders,” she said.
The video series includes female firefighters in Oakland taking out flames during a training session—including extra footage seen through a helmet cam. Several firefighters are interviewed about stereotypes they face in the communities they protect, and we meet the new chief. Ever want a tour of a fire engine or firefighter gear? Buckle up.
The infographic above breaks down the fire department’s personnel by race and gender. Infographic by John C. Osborn. Julia Marshall was a contributing videographer for this report.
See Oakland North’s coverage for the 20th anniversary of the Oakland Hills Fire here.
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