February 3, 2012 / 5:52 AM / 8 years ago

Oakland hires first black woman as U.S. big-city fire chief

OAKLAND, California (Reuters) - In a career spent climbing ladders, Teresa Deloach-Reed of Oakland has grasped a landmark rung by being named to become the first black woman to serve as chief of a major metropolitan fire department in the United States.

Deloach-Reed, 53, is slated to take the helm of the 580-person Oakland Fire Department in March, following her appointment to the position earlier this week.

She already was part of a select group. As of 2010, fewer 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.

“It’s exciting,” Deloach-Reed told Reuters in a telephone interview.

“There are still a lot of (fire) departments that don’t have any women,” said Deloach-Reed, whose last post was as assistant fire chief of San Jose, California. “We still have a long way to go in regards to breaking down the doors.”

She will take over in Oakland from interim Chief Mark Hoffman.

A lot has changed for Deloach-Reed since 1986, when she joined the San Jose Fire Department. For one thing, female firefighters no longer have to wear pants and shirts made for men, as Deloach-Reed did in her first years, she said.

Deloach-Reed, who has lived in Oakland since 1989, joins a racially diverse group of top officials in the city. Oakland has an Asian American mayor in Jean Quan. And newly appointed police chief Howard Jordan is black.

Deloach-Reed did not spend her early life planning to break down doors, metaphorically or literally. But after growing up in Sacramento, California, she got a job installing telephones, which required climbing to the top of a lot of poles.

Then in 1985, one of her seven brothers, a police officer in San Jose, told her that city’s fire department was hiring. He handed her an application to pass along to another of their brothers.

But Deloach-Reed was concerned about possible layoffs at the phone company where she worked. And looking at the application, she noticed it mentioned working with ladders.

“I said, ‘I know how to raise ladders,’” she recalled. So instead of handing off the application, she filled it out.

Within a year she was in the San Jose firefighting academy, part of a new wave of female recruits brought in by then-Fire Chief Robert Osby, a department reformer.

Asked if the new women faced discrimination, Deloach-Reed was diplomatic. “Some of them were very open-arms, just willing to help,” she said. “Some had their vision of what firefighters are supposed to be like.”

Asked about harassment, she replied, “You don’t want to go there. ... It was a different generation.”

Deloach-Reed recounted that she and other women in the San Jose department supported each other, and gradually the agency changed, introducing partitions in dorm rooms and locks on bathroom doors.

Now, a quarter-century later, Deloach-Reed will blaze another trail as the first black female fire chief in a metropolitan city, defined as having a fire department of at least 400 employees, according to Oakland city and fire officials.

She said the key to diversifying fire departments is recruitment.

“Women in the fire department have to go out and tell other women it’s a great profession, because there is still this stereotype that women are not firefighters,” she said.

Editing By Alex Dobuzinskis and Will Dunham

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