The Fire Next Time

As a civil rights advocate, Bob Demmons called in the federal government to end racism in the Fire Department. Now that he's chief, he has to remove federal control and prove that firefighters can manage race relations on their own.

For a guy who tore at the racist artifice of the San Francisco Fire Department for nearly 20 years, Robert Demmons is no fire-breathing radical. Dressed in a brown cardigan in his spacious office at SFFD headquarters at 260 Golden Gate, the newly anointed fire chief speaks so softly you have to lean into him to hear.

Demmons smiles -- shyly, it seems -- as he guides a visitor to the comfortable couch in his office. His guest insists on the more formal table in the middle of the room, not realizing that Demmons is trying to create a friendly atmosphere.

"Well these aren't exactly the most comfortable chairs in the room," Demmons says as he acquiesces.

Demmons' mild demeanor doesn't quite square with his history: president of the Black Firefighters Association for 12 years and an original plaintiff in the series of federal and state lawsuits that after many years placed a "consent decree" on the department and fractured its racist and misogynous personnel system.

"It wasn't something I did willingly," he says.
What moved Demmons was that day in 1978 when he took a lieutenants exam and discovered, much to his wonder, that merit and hard work didn't have much to do with promotions at the department.

"Before that I considered myself a pretty private individual. I just enjoyed my family. I didn't, like, go out a lot, except maybe fishing, stuff like that," he says. "Not to clubs and things. I just took care of myself and let other people pretty much take care of themselves.

"What I found out," he adds after a pause, "is that I was linked to other people."

Bob Demmons was a reluctant revolutionary. But a revolutionary all the same. Over his shoulder, to the left of his desk, is a touchstone: a print of South African President Nelson Mandela. "The Struggle Is My Life," the print announces.

To compare the two men is not high-flown. Like Mandela, Demmons was once the outsider, the "troublemaker" fighting a closed, racist institution. Like the ANC leader, Demmons was asked by his former oppressors (once they realized they'd no choice) to help reform the institution.

Demmons' assimilation into the department leadership began in earnest in 1991 when then-Chief Fred Postel appointed him assistant chief in charge of management services, the division charged with investigating discrimination complaints, among other things. Postel, by Demmons' word, wasn't what you'd call an enlightened man in matters of race -- at least that wasn't his reputation. But like F.W. De Klerk and other former South African politicians, he had more politick than prejudice.

As assistant chief, Demmons was well-placed for the ultimate promotion. That came in January 1996, inauguration day, when Mayor Willie Brown announced from the Yerba Buena Gardens podium that he was appointing Demmons fire chief, making Demmons the first African-American to hold that post since the department was founded in the 1860s.

The appointment was a shocker, a bold and telling stroke on the part of the mayor. "White firefighters were in disbelief ... simply unable to react," says James Jefferson, the federal court special master who was appointed in 1995 to scrutinize the department.

The message behind Demmons' appointment: This is a new day. The last remnants of the old regime, the white ethnic rule that has defined the department for most of its history, is to be swept away. There is no going back; everyone is going to get along. Or else.

Delivering on Mayor Brown's promise won't be easy. Demmons has a difficult transition to make. Like Mandela, he now holds the reins of power at the very institution he attacked, nudged, picketed, and sued since he graduated fire college in 1974. And despite the efforts of Demmons and others, the department is nowhere near to being free of its discriminatory systems, practices, and people.

And the old guard seems willing to fight a guerrilla war against Demmons and his efforts. Their first shot came on March 10 of this year in a Page One Examiner article lambasting Special Master Jefferson for owing back taxes at the same time he's making more than $200,000 a year in city consulting contracts. It also made the case that Jefferson pads his $200-an-hour billings to the city.

Whatever the merits of the story, Jefferson says it was calculated to undermine the desegregation of the department.

"The [white] firefighters planted that," he says. "They hate me; they want to carve me a new asshole."

The second shot came late last month in the Chronicle with stories on three consecutive days about fire code violations that have gone unpunished or uninvestigated over the years, "in clear violation of the law," a leaked document showed. That lax fire code enforcement is the legacy of former Chief Joseph Medina only rated passing mention in the stories.

If the coverage -- and the leaks -- was designed to put Demmons in a defense crouch and remove his attention from complying with the consent decree and integrating the department, one wonders what's next. Whatever it is, Demmons' attention is not likely to be deflected. He has bigger worries.

Documents and interviews indicate that: White firefighters still ignore the orders of black and female superiors; the "N" word is still used; female cadets are forced out of fire college and harassed out of the department; and last year the city was forced to pay $300,000 in damages to the first woman to make lieutenant in the department, who said that her subordinates wouldn't listen to her, the station house atmosphere was hostile, and a male firefighter once tried to push her off a roof during a fire.

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