Who's Leading Oakland's Fire Department: An In-Depth Interview

Oakland native and longtime firefighter Darin White was sworn in as Oakland’s city’s fire chief in October. In what’s likely one of the toughest jobs to take on in Oakland right now, White is now leading the troubled department. The 2016 deadly Ghost Ship and 2017 San Pablo fires shone a light on Oakland Fire Department’s flawed fire inspection process and the city’s code inspection process as a whole. After the Ghost Ship, then-fire Chief Teresa Reed faced harsh criticism for going largely unseen. 

Some serious issues Chief White faces moving forward include: approximately 1000 backlogged state-mandated fire inspections, a historic staffing shortage within the Fire Prevention Bureau and an overhaul of the department’s entire inspection process.

2 Investigates Candice Nguyen sat down with Chief White for an in-depth, one-on-one interview so the Bay Area can learn more about him and his vision for picking the Oakland Fire Department back up. 

Nguyen: Congratulations, you were recently sworn in. How has the transition been?

White: It’s been very, very busy. During my course as interim fire chief, we had a 90-day stabilization plan, and we were working on moving that forward. In my opinion, it’s been a transition thus far. 

Nguyen: It’s been a very trying several months [for the Oakland Fire Department], would you agree?

White: It’s been one of the more unusual or difficult months that I’ve seen in my career, and many of the men and women in my department would share that sentiment. It’s been difficult, absolutely.

Nguyen: This past year – construction fires, Ghost Ship, staffing, catching up on backlogged inspections. Is your Department overwhelmed?

White: I would say we’ve had to adjust to a new reality. We had to adjust to things I haven’t seen other local agencies have to adjust to in the same compressed amount of time. But, I think the men and women of this organization are up to the task, and they’ve demonstrated that time and time again. I don’t think we’re overwhelmed. I think we’ve been challenged like very few others.

Nguyen: A recent report on the city’s progress after the Ghost Ship fire reveals about a 1000 backlogged state-mandated fire inspections. How does your department plan to be proactive with inspections if it’s still catching up on them?

White: You’re absolutely right. We had to prioritize our inspection process. We have to balance that with the fact that we don’t have a significant number of staff right now. We are working to improve that. 

A couple things we’ve done to address the backlog is we’ve accessed an existing contract to have a contractor go out and perform some of those inspections. We have a request for proposal process going on where 600 more will be done in the next several months. 

Moreover we’ve moved over sworn staff to the Fire Prevention Bureau and inspection process and those individuals are serving a link between suppression and fire prevention bureau civilians to make sure we get hands-on inspections. 

In addition, we are on the verge of giving job offers to five of the six individuals we have budgeted for this fiscal year. So we’ve improved staff and technology to ensure we can actually tackle the problem and get caught up as soon as we possibly can. 

Nguyen: How do you plan to move forward?

White: My plan is to continue to provide the leadership the department needs, the advocacy this department needs whether for the equipment resources, our training, our safety. All of those things that make a fire department successful to help the community.

Nguyen: What are your priorities as Chief?

White: First and foremost, the safety of the community and safety of my members. It’s a dangerous profession, and it is increasingly dangerous as the years go on. So given what’s happening in the world, in the U.S…even what’s happening in California and locally. Our preparedness is high priority for me. 

Nguyen: When Ghost Ship happened, where were you?

White: Well, I responded to the incident as a deputy chief at the time. Without going into a lot of detail. I arrived on scene right after the order was made to go defensive. It was a day I’ll never forget. I was at the incident.

I think this is a great opportunity, to lead the men and women I used to work alongside. Not many people know of the sacrifices the men and women of the fire department make on a daily basis. I feel proud I was elected 

As far as what they encountered in the course of the year. I am encouraged because I don’t think we can go any lower. I certainly hope not, and I see nothing but a bright future ahead. 

I’m trying to give everyone the perspective of let’s look ahead. Let’s not forget the past, but not dwell in the past. 

Nguyen: After the Ghost Ship, then-Fire Chief Teresa Reed faced harsh criticism for going largely unseen. Then she went on leave and ultimately retired. How would you have handled that situation a chief?

White: One of the conversations I had with the former chief briefly after the incident occurred was … I don’t envy the situation you’re in. This is not your fault, and I hope you don’t take this and internalize this. In my opinion, it wasn’t her responsibility. I think there’s a shared responsibility among shared individual. 

That being said. I would hope I would continue to be strong. I would hope I would have the right perspective to lead in those trying circumstances. I hope I’d have the support of the people in the community, the members of my department, the City and others.