National University

Meet Teresa Deloach Reed, Chief of the Oakland Fire Department

As Chief of the Oakland Fire Department, National University alumna Teresa Deloach Reed (MPA, 2012) is the nation's first African American woman to lead a major metropolitan fire department. She has broken barriers and overcome various challenges throughout her impressive 25-year career.

The Newswire recently interviewed Chief Reed to discuss the demands of her profession and the pathway that lead to her prestigious post. The Oakland Fire Department has an impressive legacy of integration and equal opportunity. It was among the first in the nation to hire African American firefighters, and one of the first to desegregate. Chief Reed appreciates the historical significance of being the first African American woman to hold her post, yet she believes it comes with a certain responsibility.

"Being the first to open a door is only good if you can hold it wide enough for others to walk through," she said, paying tribute to Rosemary Cloud – believed to be the nation's first black female fire chief – and others who paved the way for her opportunity.

There have been a handful of female role models in fire fighting for Chief Reed to follow, including Berkeley Fire Chief Debra Pryor; San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White; and Austin, Texas Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr. "Being a part of that group makes me feel good," she added.

According to recent information from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women constitute less than 5 percent of all firefighters in the United States. Female fire chiefs are rarer still. "The first woman I became aware of in this position was Rosemary Bliss in Tiburon, California," said Chief Reed. "I remember when the announcement went out. I thought 'Oh my gosh! There's a woman running a fire department!'"

As a young woman, Oakland's Fire Chief said it was never her ambition to be a firefighter. She was a telephone installer at the time she reviewed a job application for the San Jose Fire Department. "I read it and said to myself 'I can do this.'" Reed applied for the job, graduated from the academy and went to work manning hoses and ladders, working with rescue saws, the jaws of life and other heavy equipment. She went on to drive fire trucks as an engineer before becoming a battalion chief, then a deputy chief in San Jose. Her years of hands-on experience have earned the respect of her employees and peers.

"It's important as a fire chief that I have a clear understanding of what my people are experiencing out there on the job; a personal appreciation of the skill set, the training, the stamina and determination to get the job done," Chief Reed explained.

Although she no longer participates directly in the fire fighting, the distinguished National University alumna still reports to the scene of an emergency on occasion to observe operations. In her new position, Chief Reed still requires the same level of toughness, although it is a different kind.

"Early in my career, the physical aspects of my job were most challenging, but later it became more of a mental challenge," she explained.

Insuring the safety of Oakland's citizens is an enormous responsibility. The city of 391,000 residents has seen its fair share of major disasters, from the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989 to the Oakland-Berkeley Hills Fire of 1991. Such dangers are constantly on Chief Reed's mind. Observing the overgrown and dried out vegetation as she drives through the outlying areas of Oakland, she said she can't help but assess the risks on a daily basis and contemplate what more can be done to mitigate the risks.

"Topography, weather, ever-changing fuel sources. I'm always analyzing these things and trying to stay one step ahead," Chief Reed explained. "We work closely with the state, our neighboring agencies and other partners to plan and prepare, but there is always more to do. My people are very aggressive and proactive in that regard. We continue to train, meet with stakeholders and keep everyone educated on the steps to prevent or minimize damage."

With a fiscal crisis impacting California at all levels of government, insuring that equipment is up-to-date and that her fire department has the necessary manpower to do the job effectively is yet another challenge. "That's also a huge part of my job," Chief Reed added. "For a long time, the saying has been 'Do more with less.' We continually strive to do what we can with what we have, and we train to a level where we can manage no matter what equipment and resources we have."

She compliments her staff for "thinking outside the box" and dedicating themselves to doing their job under any circumstance, and notes that the Oakland Fire Department is among an elite group of the 28 nationwide FEMA task force teams.

Chief Reed was in the No. 2 position with the San Jose Fire Department when she started her Master's program with National University. It was yet another challenge for the dauntless Deputy Fire Chief, and she said she started to question her ambition at times.

"In the end, earning that degree was huge for me," she added. "Having that master's degree is invaluable at this level of leadership. It has really helped to bolster a sense of teamwork between the Fire Department and other government agencies. The experience I've gained on the job has been important, but the formal education has been just as important."