Firefighters Address Mayor with Grievances Over Fire Chief’s Leadership

San Francisco firefighters have called upon Mayor Ed Lee to remove Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White, saying her lack of strategic planning has led to the department’s failure to provide timely emergency medical response to the public.

A letter signed by the San Francisco firefighters’ union and other employee groups sent to the mayor on Monday announced their unanimous decision to express their “lack of confidence in the current Administration.”

The letter urged the mayor to make management changes immediately in order to provide effective services to San Franciscans facing emergency situations.

Fire department employees represented by San Francisco Fire Fighters Local 798 as well as the Black Firefighters Association, United Fire Service Women, Asian Firefighters Association, SF Paramedic/Firefighter Association, SF EMS Officers Association and Latino Firefighters Association, or Los Bomberos, called upon the mayor to establish an interim management team comprised of three chief officers until a new fire chief is appointed.

Hayes-White was appointed the position of fire chief in 2004 by then-mayor Gavin Newsom and oversees a department of approximately 1,800 members as well as an operating budget of $250 million, according to the San Francisco Fire Department website.

Thomas O’Conner Jr., the president of the San Francisco Fire Fighters Local 798, said he and a group of about 25 people who head sections within the fire department met with the mayor this week and explained to him how the department found itself in a state of crisis and how they felt Hayes-White could have prevented it.

O’Conner said the mayor was appreciative of the department’s candor and the fact that “every facet of the department was represented” really drove the point home.

The claim that ambulance response times in San Francisco are lagging led San Francisco Supervisor London Breed to introduce a request for a ballot measure last week requiring the fire department to maintain speedy response times for emergency medical services.

Breed said her intention is to accommodate the increased demand on the fire department due to the growing population of the city so that during an emergency, no one has to wait extended periods for services or an ambulance.

“This is a serious ongoing threat to public safety,” Breed said last week.

She said she too had lost confidence in the chief’s ability to adequately run the department.

Breed said paramedics and firefighters don’t have the tools they need to do their jobs right.

She said that in August alone, there were 374 cases in which it took more than 20 minutes for ambulances to arrive.

San Francisco fire spokeswoman Mindy Talmadge said while those were not life-threatening emergencies, the department aims to get their response to under 20 minutes, but sometimes falls short as ambulances are rerouted for life-threatening emergencies.

Talmadge said she agrees with Breed in that the department’s staffing levels are not sufficiently meeting the growing demand for emergency services.

Talmadge said “the mayor only granted the Fire Department funding for a portion of the personnel that Chief Hayes-White requested,” but that the hiring of 35 new medical personnel about two weeks ago has led to a downward trend in ambulance response times.

Hayes-White admits that delays in transports have been occurring, but assured the public that “medically trained personnel are at the patient’s side providing care and treatment, within minutes of being dispatched.”

Hayes-White said she is “very pleased to see that while the dispatch center’s medical call volume continues to rise, the transport unit response times are improving.”

She expects the ambulance response times to continue to improve with the arrival of additional ambulances that have been requested from the private ambulance companies who currently work with the city in responding to emergencies.

O’Conner said he wished the chief had listened to the growing concerns of firefighters and concerned citizens before it became a crisis.

He said the crisis in the department was not unforeseen and the chief still isn’t planning ahead.

The letter to the mayor also describes other problems at the department including a slew of lawsuits and a series of controversial promotional exams.

Among the issues that the firefighters’ letter asks the mayor to task the interim management team with include hiring more emergency personnel to minimize overtime by employees, moving forward in growing the ambulance fleet and addressing the root causes for the pending lawsuits.

O’Conner said the department has never tried to oust a fire chief before and he isn’t sure how it will play out. He said only the mayor and the city’s five-member fire commission have the power to change the administration.

“It’s all uncharted territory,” O’Conner said.

Hannah Albarazi, Bay City News

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