The disastrous Ghost Ship fire has intensified long-simmering tensions between Oakland Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed and the city’s firefighters union, which for years has been lobbying behind the scenes to get her fired.
At the same time, however, African American community leaders are coming to the chief’s defense, complaining that Mayor Libby Schaaf’s administration may be setting her up to take the blame for the deadly fire.
Deloach Reed, a former assistant chief in San Jose, was tapped as chief in 2012 by then-Mayor Jean Quan, making her the first black woman to head a major fire department in the U.S.
However, within a year tensions began to develop between Deloach Reed and the firefighters union on the overall management of the department.
Since the Ghost Ship fire, union officials have been the go-to sources for quotes about problems with the department’s inspection bureau. An Alameda County civil grand jury found in 2014 that the bureau was failing to conduct thousands of required annual inspections, and union bosses were happy to point out to reporters that Deloach Reed hadn’t gotten around to naming a fire marshal to run the bureau until 2015 — instead, trying to do the job herself.
There were plenty of other vacancies in the department under the chief, union officials maintained.
“We have been pushing (Deloach Reed) every month to make the hires and do the inspections,” said union Vice President Zac Unger. “I don’t know where the money that the City Council budgeted for those positions ended up.
“It creates dangerous situations for our firefighters and for our citizens,” Unger said.
It didn’t help last week when reporters figured out that the Ghost Ship converted warehouse had never been inspected by the Fire Department before the Dec. 2 blaze that killed 36 people.
“I can’t answer how that warehouse slipped through the cracks and that it bypassed our system — or how it bypassed the city’s system,” Deloach Reed told CNN. “But everybody is at the table right now trying to figure out what happened.”
Having thrown the chief under the fire truck, union leaders are declining to say anything further, telling us they want to give Schaaf time to consider the situation.
From the sound of things, however, the mayor doesn’t think there’s much to ponder.
“The union may think this is the right track, but we don’t,” said Schaaf’s spokeswoman, Erica Terry Derryck. “This is not the time for divisiveness.”
Oakland isn’t the only place where firefighters have gone to war with their chief. In San Francisco, the firefighters union has long campaigned to get Chief Joanne Hayes-White fired, but Mayor Ed Lee has stood by her.
Some have attributed that fight to a predominately male union’s resentment of a female chief. In Oakland, the battle is taking on more racial overtones — with a largely white union taking on a black chief in a city where the African American community is worried about losing clout as its numbers diminish.
The Oakland Post, long seen as the voice of Oakland’s African American political establishment under publisher Paul Cobb, is sounding the alarm that Deloach Reed is being hung out to dry.
“There are indications that Mayor Libby Schaaf and the city administration may be trying to set up the Fire Department and the fire chief” to take the blame for the Ghost Ship disaster, the Post said in its Dec. 8 edition.
“Some observers have noticed that Reed, who is black, is being pushed to the side,” the Post said. “City staff has tapped her subordinates and other city officials to speak at press conferences, bypassing her leadership, and blaming her for understaffing of fire inspectors, excessive overtime for the few inspectors on staff and insufficient funding for crucial functions.”
Derryck called the assertions baseless, noting that Deloach Reed was one of myriad city officials who went before the microphones at the scene in the days after the fire.
For her part, Schaaf has said she will “not scapegoat city employees in the wake of this disaster.”
“What we will do is give them the clarity and support that they deserve,” Schaaf said.