By Everton Bailey Jr. , The Associated Pres via The Oregonian/OregonLive
Sara Boone never thought a question about fire extinguishers would change her life.
A Marshall High School P.E. teacher in the early-90s, Boone was on her lunch break when a Portland fire inspector asked her where he could find the nearest extinguishers. The two struck up a conversation, which led to her confessing that she was questioning whether she wanted to be a teacher for the rest of her life.
Then in her early 20s, volunteering and giving back to her community was important to her. But she missed being part of a team. She had spent a large part of her life immersed in athletics, she explained to the stranger, and recently graduated from Boise State University on a track and field scholarship. Boone returned to her hometown to try positively influence kids as her coaches had. But she was discouraged that the help she could offer was limited to the gym.
“At some point he looks at me,” Boone said, “and he said, ‘Have you ever thought about going into the fire service?’”
Boone was skeptical. She hadn’t seen many African-American women as firefighters, and no one in her immediate family worked in the field.
But her parents encouraged her to learn more and she was intrigued by the idea of having a greater impact on her city.
In 1995, Boone became the first black woman hired by Portland Fire & Rescue. Though there have been barriers she’s had to overcome, Boone said, she fell in love with the camaraderie of the fire bureau and helping make Portland better.
After 24 years, Boone was sworn in as chief in August, becoming the first African American to lead Portland’s fire bureau in its 136-year existence.
Now 50, she leads Oregon’s largest fire and emergency services provider with around 750 employees — in a sector where the demands continue to expand far beyond dousing building fires.
In recent years, Portland firefighters have deployed to California to help battle wildfires, for example. And in Portland, around 80 percent of the calls firefighters respond to are medical related, Boone said. On Nov. 21, the city approved a pilot program that will dispatch a two-person team from the fire bureau to respond to some non-emergency calls in Southeast Portland involving people experiencing homelessness and or having an apparent mental health crisis.
“We’re in the midst of a health care crisis and not everybody has a health care provider, but they can call 911,” Boone told The Oregonian/OregonLive. “We still have to be technically proficient when it comes to putting out fires, but we also have to carry an entire other system when it comes to medical services, and there’s a huge need.”
She said she believes her experience over the last quarter century moving up the ranks and working in several different areas of the bureau has helped her understand the agency’s strengths and how it can improve.
Boone said some of her goals as the bureau’s leader are to improve the health and safety of her members, help make the agency more inclusive internally, increase recruiting in under-represented communities and maintain relationships with other partner agencies to help make the city safer.
“For me, being chief is an amazing honor, but also a reflection of a larger systemic problem that since the inception of Portland Fire this is the first time a person of color sits at the top,” Boone said. “I wouldn’t be chief of this bureau if I didn’t have the internal support from my colleagues. And I think that reflects the dedication, commitment and hard work I put in every year that they recognize who I am as a person.”
When Boone met the fire inspector, she said he suggested that she join the bureau’s firefighter apprenticeship program. It was a new initiative targeting women and people of color to teach them over six months about the fire service and to provide basic emergency medical technician certification. It was meant to be a pathway to getting enrolled in the fire academy and hired by the Portland Fire Bureau.
With encouragement from the fire inspector and her parents, Boone applied and was one of 24 accepted into the first class.
Wearing 50 pounds of equipment and climbing a ladder up a six-story tower during training with no safety harness, she questioned for the first time whether she should continue pursuing firefighting.
“I remember thinking, ‘I don’t think I’m afraid of heights,’ but I’d also never been 50, 60 feet in the air on the outside of a building before,” Boone said. “But there was an internal voice that was resonating louder that kept me going because some day I knew there could be someone at the end of the ladder that needs my help.”
Boone was one of 12 people to graduate from the apprenticeship program. Two years after her conversation about extinguishers, Boone was hired as a Portland firefighter. There were four women firefighters in the bureau at the time, she said.
She’d go on to gain leadership roles in the bureau’s safety, operations, medical service and training divisions and be promoted to battalion chief in 2014, the bureau’s first African-American chief officer.
Mike Myers, Portland’s previous fire chief, said Boone was instrumental in helping get funding for new breathing apparatuses replaced this year. Being fire chief is a round-the-clock, high pressure, high demand job “where things can shift at a moment’s notice,” he said. He described Boone as an experienced, well-rounded leader who has earned widespread respect throughout Portland’s fire agency.
“She’s a compassionate person, loves being in Portland and working on some of the harder projects that the fire bureau faces. And she’s a very passionate chief officer,” said Myers, who is now director of Portland’s Bureau of Emergency Management. “I’ve always been impressed with her. She’s the person you would want leading a bureau.”
During Boone’s swearing-in ceremony, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said Boone initially wasn’t interested in leading the entire bureau, believing she could be more of an asset to the agency elsewhere. Hardesty, who oversees the fire bureau, said Boone’s colleagues convinced the veteran firefighter otherwise and the next time she spoke to Boone, she was interested in how to apply for the position.
Hardesty told The Oregonian/OregonLive that she believes in Boone’s vision and experience to lead the bureau forward.
“I appreciate Chief Boone’s proactive, community health-driven vision for the fire bureau,” Hardesty said. “Nationally, the nature of firefighting is changing, and Chief Boone is taking Fire & Rescue into a future that reflects that change.”
Boone said her bureau and others still have work to do to better reflect the communities they serve.
Fire bureau records show the agency recruited 686 people between 2000 and 2018, 89 percent of them men and 81 percent of them White. Half of the people recruited went on to be hired.
Boone noted that Portland’s fire department stopped being a volunteer service and became an official employer in 1883, before women were allowed to vote and before Oregon’s exclusion laws to prevent Black people from settling in the state were repealed.
“It started based on discriminatory policies and practices and some of those legacy policies and practices show us that outcome today,” Boone said. “If we’re moving to a more inclusive, suitable fire service, then we need to undo that harm and better reflect what the bureau is today.”
Boone said she wants the Portland fire bureau to market more to children in all languages. When she was growing up in Portland in the 1970s and 80s, she didn’t see many firefighters who looked like her, so she never considered it as a possibility. She wonders how many others also overlook firefighting as a possible career for similar reasons.
“I will always champion the men and women of Portland Fire & Rescue because we didn’t build this system,” she said. “We’re trying to live within the system and change it to make it more just, fair and inclusive. My hope is that our actions today and going forward will set the next generation up for success.”
Information from: The Oregonian/OregonLive, http://www.oregonlive.com