A New Team in Town

The three-alarm fire had already claimed three lives. When San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White arrived at the burning downtown tenement in the middle of one night last month, she noticed several residents huddled on the sidewalk refusing treatment from her paramedics. Gently quizzing the terrified survivors in Spanish, the chief learned why: the illegal migrants, who were living 12 to a room when a mattress caught fire, feared that their rescuers would turn them in for deportation. Hayes-White assured them that wouldn't happen. Then she summoned a bilingual officer to continue comforting the survivors while they received first aid. "People think it's all brawn," she says. "But more often than not, this is a job that requires a lot of interaction with people. There's a real sense of calm that comes in a crisis when you relate to someone who looks like you, speaks like you and thinks like you."

Luckily for Hayes-White, in San Francisco she has plenty of other women to lean on who share the burden of protecting public safety. Police Chief Heather Fong is the first Asian-American woman to lead her department. District Attorney Kamala Harris is the first African-American woman to lead hers. If you die in San Francisco, your untimely passing could be investigated by a female coroner and a female medical examiner. If the "Big One" hits, Director of the Office of Emergency Services and Homeland Security Annemarie Conroy, who nicknamed her colleagues "the Sirens," will coordinate relief efforts. It's no accident, says Mayor Gavin Newsom, that public safety in his city is managed almost exclusively by women. Except for the district attorney, who was elected in 2003, he appointed them all. "I wasn't looking for the 'woman' candidate," Newsom says. "I was looking for a competent team."

In the post-Katrina world, Newsom reasons, the public demands nothing less than the compassionate, collaborative and practical approach he gets from his women chiefs. And as Katrina showed all too clearly, there is no more critical task in a disaster than the ability of first responders to coordinate and communicate with each other and the public. "America loves the macho guy with the cigar and the crew cut," says Newsom. "But America also likes results. I've often sat in envy of the ability of women to multitask, put ego aside, not complain, and solve the problem."

Like Newsom, 38, his "Sirens" belong to a new generation of reformers. Hayes-White, 41, entered the firefighting academy in 1990, two years after the fire department was ordered by a consent decree to admit women--a legal battle that lasted for 18 years. An athletic mother of three young sons, Hayes-White mastered the physical demands of her profession, but saw firsthand the problems caused by the stationhouse boozing that was long part of San Francisco's firefighting culture. As chief, she has publicly disciplined not only violators, but also their supervisors for failing to enforce the department's zero-tolerance policy on alcohol and drug use.

Being a parent, says Hayes-White, has been the best preparation for leading 1,700 firefighters. "It's about consistent discipline, setting clear boundaries, rules and expectations." It's also about nurturing. When one of her firefighters was injured during last month's blaze, Hayes-White visited the burn unit almost every day until the woman was released. To promote departmental pride, Hayes-White comes to work each day in her full uniform and requires the same of her command staff.

District Attorney Kamala Harris and Police Chief Heather Fong inherited departments that were at war with each other. The feud climaxed in 2002, when Harris's predecessor indicted the police chief and his command staff after a fracas, involving off-duty police officers and a bag of leftover Mexican food, that became known as Fajitagate. Although a judge eventually threw out the charges, the police chief resigned. Months later his successor was also forced out, following another off-duty brawl. Fong, then an assistant chief known as a stickler for discipline and decorum, assumed behind-the-scenes management of the 2,100-member force until Newsom appointed her chief last year.

It's hard to imagine a less rough-and-tumble cop than Fong, 49. She holds a master's degree in social work and made her mark as a rookie by helping to translate wiretaps of Chinese gang members. Growing up in Chinatown, Fong spoke a Cantonese dialect at home with her parents, who, like many Asian families, says Fong, "didn't regard law enforcement as a desirable profession for their children." But that didn't deter Fong, who joined a police-cadet program in high school, then took a break during college to attend the police academy in 1977, shortly after it started admitting women.

Harris, 40, the hard-driving daughter of an Indian mother and a Jamaican father, both academics and civil-rights activists, grew up in Berkeley. But anyone who mistakes her for a softhearted liberal should think again. As a prosecutor in Oakland, Harris never lost a felony case sent to the jury. In San Francisco's most crime-ridden neighborhoods, Harris has become a hero --to mothers of murder victims, with whom she meets regularly to review the prosecutions of their children's accused killers. During her first year in office, Harris has boosted the conviction rate for felonies from 62 percent to 79 percent.

At the same time, she has also embraced innovative prevention strategies. For youthful offenders leaving prison, Harris is creating a re-entry program to provide schooling and job training. She helped raise money to build a safe house for teen prostitutes. "We have to dispense with old conversation about being 'soft' on crime or being 'hard' on crime," says Harris. "We have to talk about being smart on crime."

Harris's efforts to improve relations with the police department got off to a rough start when an undercover police officer was shot and killed shortly after she took office in 2004. Harris, a Democrat opposed to the death penalty, announced that she would instead seek life in prison for the accused killer. The decision enraged police. Despite those tensions, Harris and Fong continued to meet regularly, in part to signal to their departments that the work of law enforcement had to go on. Newsom gives the two women credit for continuing to communicate, unlike their male predecessors, who went for years without speaking to each other.

If there is one word that comes up again and again among San Francisco's women chiefs, it is "communication." "There are many ways to mediate and defuse situations," says Fong. She pushes her officers to patrol beats on foot to get to know neighbors. That willingness to try tactics that aren't "badge heavy" is typical of women who are now assuming command in other large cities, including Boston, Milwaukee and Detroit, says Margie Moore, director of the National Center for Women and Policing in Arlington, Va. "Eighty percent of modern policing is about communication, prevention and management," she says.

Women are also making strides in firefighting, as the first generation of women to be admitted in the 1980s acquires enough seniority to reach the chiefs' ranks. In addition to Joanne Hayes-White, there are female chiefs in Minneapolis, Tallahassee, Fla., Tacoma, Wash., and a handful of smaller cities. Those numbers will increase in the coming years, says Terese Floren, head of Women in the Fire Service, Inc., an association of women firefighters. "Fire departments are learning that having a more diverse team of responders gives you more options in responding to human tragedy," she says.

Although Hayes-White had only 14 years on the job, Newsom said she had the right skills to lead. "I didn't look for someone who said, 'Here's how we've done it for 40 years'," says Newsom. "I wanted an entrepreneurial approach." Hayes-White and Fong recently decided to conduct joint training for police and firefighters who often respond to the same emergencies. When the women took their top brass to lunch last year to celebrate the Chinese New Year, passersby in Chinatown flocked to the windows, thinking there had been a calamity. Even their deputies asked what the purpose of the meeting was. "I had to say, 'Guys, relax, we're just having lunch'," says Hayes-White. But in San Francisco, ladies who lunch also save lives.