The first openly queer fire chief, Jeanine Nicholson, spoke at the Berkeley Forum on Thursday, where she discussed the history and future of diversity, equity and inclusion in the San Francisco Fire Department, or SFFD.
Nicholson started her career in the fire department as a firefighter EMT in 1994, then advanced to become the 26th deputy chief of administration in 2018. Now fire chief, Nicholson focuses on disaster preparedness, firefighter safety and community paramedicine. Nicholson was also responsible for establishing the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in San Francisco, according to event manager Miles Nash, who previously worked for The Daily Californian.
Nicholson said she lived next to a fire department growing up but had “no idea” she could ever become a firefighter because she never saw women when she visited the station. It wasn’t until a female firefighter recruited her at a Pride parade that she considered the opportunity.
“I started in the department in 1994 and it was during a time where there was a consent decree in place because the department had been pretty much 99% white males for a really long time,” Nicholson said during the event. “(It) really had some challenges and did not look like the city that it served.”
The consent decree required that the SFFD be made up of 10% women and 50% minority groups to make the department more diverse and inclusive.
Now 15% of SFFD staff are women and 80% belong to minority groups, according to Nicholson.
“We still live in the world we live in; there’s still challenges with racism, sexism, homophobia, right?” Nicholson said during the event. “There are all those challenges that exist in the world and the fire department is no different.”
Though the consent decree and other programs in the Office of DEI created a “melting pot” within the fire department, thereby making it “better” and “stronger,” Nicholson said there is still more that needs to be done internally and externally. For instance, Nicholson said she wants to improve SFFD’s implicit bias training.
At the DEI office, Nicholson said she created the San Francisco’s City EMT program, which targets at-risk youth in San Francisco. City EMT offers these young adults trauma counseling, life coaching, health and hygiene and other educational resources over a three-month period. The participants are paid as they take a class to get their EMT license and have the opportunity to intern with the San Francisco ambulances, according to Nicholson.
“We started this program four years ago and it’s been extremely successful and sort of a beacon of hope in the city,” Nicholson said during the event. “And you know, part of why I wanted to do that was to open doors and give an opportunity to those who otherwise wouldn’t even have a clue that this was possible for them or have access to it.”