Berkeley’s new fire chief Debra Pryor was greeted with more hugs than handshakes as she took the reins of the Fire Department this week.
A Berkeley native, who in 1985 became the city’s first female firefighter, Pryor, 43, held court Wednesday in her new office, which was still barren except for two bouquets on her desk and a shelf full of welcome-back gifts.
“It’s extra special for me to come back to the community I grew up in and where I already have so many special relationships,” Pryor said.
Even though Pryor is enjoying her homecoming, she is aware that pending budget cuts and sour relations between the firefighters union and city leaders could shorten her honeymoon.
“I know I’m walking into a challenging situation,” Prior said.
She pledged to work with the union on policy issues and empathized with their frustrations.
“They are my group of workers and they are standing up for what they believe,” she said. “They don’t want their safety or the safety of the community compromised.”
The firefighters union is still steaming from a series of budget cuts, arguing that the cuts pose safety risks and were made in spite of several alternative measures suggested by the union. Also there is lingering animosity between the union and city leaders after the city handed police officers a more generous contract.
This year the firefighters were the only large city union to refuse a one-time reduction in scheduled salary increases to help Berkeley balance its budget, prompting the City Council to recoup the savings by reducing a fire truck company to part-time.
In November a majority of voters rejected a union-backed tax measure that would have spared the truck and lessened future cuts.
“Right now people are considering transferring to other cities,” said incoming union head Gil Dong, who added that firefighters have been frank with Pryor about their concerns.
With 17 years in the department, Pryor already has strong relations with many Berkeley firefighters.
“I’m really overjoyed that she’s coming back as chief,” said Tyre Mills III, a BFD apparatus operator.
As his training officer, Mills III said Pryor never accepted mediocrity. He recalled her reaction when he told her that he was satisfied with a string of B grades. “She lit into me and demanded I study harder,” Mills said. “I look back on that whenever I test for a promotion.”
After working her way up to the department’s deputy chief position, Pryor, who was passed up for Berkeley chief in 1997, said she decided to leave for Palo Alto in 2002 to work with then Chief Ruben Grijalva.
“He reorganized the department to create a space for me and gave me a chance to learn a different system and face different challenges,” she said.
Dan Firth, Palo Alto’s acting fire marshal, credited Pryor with engaging colleagues who needed to buy into changes she implemented. “In meetings she always found a way to build support and get other departments to help us out,” he said.
Pryor, who started in Palo Alto as fire marshall and director of fire prevention and left as director of operations, said she would try to import some of the city’s professional development and training programs to Berkeley. She also hoped to bolster BFD’s budget with more revenue generating programs like ambulance transport services between hospitals. Palo Alto, she said, has a similar program and also receives money from Stanford University to help pay for the department.
Pryor also wants to expand outreach in the community. She said she regularly attends career days at Malcolm X Elementary School, where she had been a student and where her mother worked as an administrator, and Willard Middle School, from which she graduated before attending Holy Names High School in Oakland.
Growing up in Berkeley, Pryor, a Hayward resident, said she never considered fire fighting as a career that was available to women. It wasn’t until after she graduated from Arizona State University and was working as a temp for the Berkeley Rent Board that she stumbled upon a recruiter.
“I looked at it as an opportunity to give back to the community,” she said.
After months of training, where she proved she could run up stairs with 250 pounds of equipment, hoses and a dummy victim, Pryor made Berkeley history and began her rise through the department’s ranks.
Pryor, who also has a masters degree in public administration from Cal State Hayward, is the second African-American Fire Chief in the country. Although she describes herself as “a chief who happens to be a women of African American descent,” she said the distinction means a lot to her.
“I think it shows what’s possible for women in all walks of life.”