By Joel P. Engardio
Let’s hope that 2015 will be kind to the San Francisco Fire Department. The past couple years have been rough.
In 2013, a survivor of the Asiana Airlines crash was killed after being run over by two fire trucks heading to the scene. Then there was a $175,000 settlement with an African American firefighter who claimed he was called a “house boy," a $3.7 million jury award for age bias and a criminal investigation of an attempted cover-up after a firefighter crashed a ladder truck while allegedly driving drunk.
2014 was dominated by reports of slow ambulance response times and a move by the firefighter’s union to give the fire chief a vote of “no confidence.”
But we can start 2015 with a bit of good news: Life got better for gay firefighters in San Francisco last year.
In 2014, the first openly gay fire commissioner in more than a decade was appointed. The fire department also formed its first resource group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees. And LGBT firefighters were recruited at the Castro Street Fair for the first time.
The fact it took until 2014 for this gay awakening shows how long the journey to diversity has been for the fire department.
It's worth remembering the fire department was almost exclusively white men for many decades. New hires were their sons, brothers and nephews from the same neighborhoods, churches and schools.
Minorities and women were so few on the force that a federal court had to monitor hiring in the 1980s and 1990s. Gays weren’t included. While a woman has been fire chief since 2004, the “boys club” culture persisted in the firehouses.
Serving openly hasn’t been easy for gay firefighters like Keith Baraka. I wrote about Baraka in my column last year when he was transferred to a new fire station after claiming a hostile work environment (“Homophobia in the San Francisco Fire Department?” Examiner, Feb. 23, 2014).
Baraka’s story lit a fire. The Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club – a group courted by many San Francisco politicians for endorsements -- sent a letter to Mayor Ed Lee, the Board of Supervisors and Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White demanding reforms including an LGBT fire commissioner. I serve on the Alice club’s board of directors with Baraka, but had no role in the letter.
Within weeks of the Alice club making its letter public, the mayor appointed openly gay Alice board member Ken Cleaveland to the fire commission.
Baraka then created an LGBT resource group called “SFResQ.” It only has about 20 members in a fire department of 1,500 employees, but Baraka is slowly convincing more gay firefighters to come out on the job.
“I’m happy with the progress,” he said. “I’m just disappointed with some of the politics of making progress.”
Baraka wants to see the fire chief replaced. He joined the recent “no confidence” vote led by the firefighter’s union and a coalition of employee groups. But the mayor continues to support the fire chief and so does the new gay fire commissioner.
“She’s working hard to improve the department,” Commissioner Cleaveland said. “My advice to her is to make decisions more transparent and show people how you get from point A to B. Everyone can do a better job, including the chief.”
Cleaveland said the fire chief will likely speak to Alice club members for the first time in 2015.
“The conversation was started when Keith shared his story,” said Ron Flynn, one of the Alice club leaders who first raised the LGBT issue with the fire chief. “But there remains a lot of work to be done.”
In the meantime, Cleaveland celebrates the initial victories.
“Keith gets the credit for stepping forward because change is happening thanks to him,” Cleaveland said. “One person can make a difference for many.”