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    Up Close and Personal with San Francisco’s First LGBTQ Fire Chief

    By Louise “Lou” Fischer–

    Mayor London Breed last month made a bold and historic move by appointing Jeanine Nicholson, an out and proud lesbian, to the position of Chief of Department of the San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD). Deputy Chief Nicholson, who had the “trifecta” of support from the Fire Commission, the rank and file (fellow firefighters) and current Chief Joanne Hayes-White (the first female Chief in San Francisco), prevailed over a field of more than 30 candidates. 

    Currently serving as Deputy Chief of Administration, Nicholson is a 25-year veteran of the Fire Department who worked her way through the ranks as a Firefighter, Lieutenant, Captain and Battalion Chief in the Fire Suppression side and Firefighter/Paramedic in the Emergency Medical Services side of the Department. Mayor Breed said it best: “This woman is tough, this woman is resilient, this woman is a leader. I am confident she will be ready to lead the department on day one.”

    I couldn’t agree more with Mayor Breed. I met Jeanine in Boston in 1986 when she tried out for my rugby team and said, “My name is Jeanine, it’s French and no one knows how to pronounce it so I go by ‘Neen.'” She ended up being one of the most athletically-talented players on the field. I jokingly asked if she played ice hockey, and learned that she was a varsity player on her college team. She joined my hockey team and was the best player on the ice. 

     

    In 1990, we both made the decision to move to San Francisco: I moved for a new job and Neen and another mutual friend of ours and I decided to “make a go of it” in what we called “Gay Disneyland.” In the early 1990s, we were mid-20s Gen-Xers enjoying the freedom, openness and diversity of San Francisco, back when the “Women’s Training Center” on Market Street was the de rigueur workout gym for lesbians, “Cafe San Marcos” was a women’s space, “Club Q” was the hot club on Fridays and the Saturday night “Girlspot” was in its heyday. It was a simpler time; the City was more open to new residents and you didn’t need to be a stock-option millionaire to find a place to live.  

    While there has been a mountain of positive coverage by the press, I’m honored that Chief Nicholson agreed to give me for the San Francisco Bay Times the first exclusive “up close and personal” interview and share information that has not been covered elsewhere.

    Lou Fischer: Where did you live before San Francisco?

    Chief Jeanine Nicholson: I’m originally from Pelham, New York. I went to college at Colgate University in upstate New York, then lived in the Boston area for a few years. I moved to San Francisco in 1990 and never looked back.

    Lou Fischer: Why San Francisco?

    Chief Jeanine Nicholson: I had visited San Francisco and loved it and I had friends here. It was a great place to be queer and be myself. It was a lot easier to move here in 1990 than it is now.

    Lou Fischer: You moved out here with 3 meowing cats in the back of your truck and have had a steady progression of pets since then. How many in total?

    Chief Jeanine Nicholson: I probably should not answer that. Let’s just say that right now I have 2 dogs, Silas and Romeo, and a cat named Humo, which means “smoke” in Spanish. 

    Lou Fischer: You joined SFFD in January, 1994. I remember how hard you worked to make that happen. Why did you want to be a firefighter?

    Chief Jeanine Nicholson: I was not fulfilled in my career path, and as much as I appreciated your help landing me a “place to park” at your company, I never saw myself working in the tech field long-term. I wanted to be of service to people and the Fire Department was a perfect fit for me because I love using my brain and body. I have an affinity for bringing calm to chaos. (Editor’s Note: Lou shared that Jeanine worked in the manufacturing department of the networking company where Lou worked while Jeanine waited out the hiring process of SFFD.)

    Lou Fischer: Being a firefighter is risky and dangerous. What was your worst on-the-job injury?

    Chief Jeanine Nicholson: Breast cancer due to exposure from toxins was my worst injury.

    Lou Fischer: Did you ever get burned in a fire?

    Chief Jeanine Nicholson: Yes, I received 1st and 2nd degree burns at an arson fire in 2009. The fire caused injuries to 6 people and several of my team were severely injured, so I was more concerned for their well-being. I was back to work in a month, and thankfully everyone fully recovered eventually.

    Lou Fischer: It broke my heart seeing you so sick with breast cancer. What was your diagnosis and treatment, and how did you ever come back to SFFD after that? 

    Chief Jeanine Nicholson: I had a double mastectomy, 16 rounds of chemotherapy and a port implanted in my chest. Total time in treatment was 7 months. It took me 13 months to come back to work on modified duty and another 7 months to come back to full duty. Any absence of over 6 months requires re-taking of the physical agility test. I was 49 years old and somehow was able to break the record for the best score of any woman on the test because when I decided to come back, I wasn’t going to let cancer get in the way. The record has since been broken because once you’ve survived cancer, you can take on anything.

    Lou Fischer: What are your goals once you take over as Chief?

    Chief Jeanine Nicholson: To ensure that SFFD works collaboratively with the Mayor’s office to reduce homelessness. We are already working on making our community paramedicine program more robust to address homelessness in San Francisco by getting people off the street and into services. Currently, 38% of SFFD’s medical calls are homeless-related. The opioid crisis is one of our top priorities. It not only impacts the user, but also stretches the resources of our first responders. We also need to focus on building up our disaster preparation, which involves working closely with the Department of Emergency Management and other City Departments. We have almost 30,000 trained members of the Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (civilians trained by SFFD to assist in disasters) and we are always looking to train more NERTs. For more information go to:  http://www.sfgov.org/sfnert

    Lou Fischer: I got NERT certified initially so I’d be prepared in the event of a disaster, and now I go to the drills because you’re so busy. It’s the only time we get to hang out!

    Chief Jeanine Nicholson: Uh, yeah, I doubt there will much time for hanging out anymore. I’m going to be pretty busy. Tell your friends and readers to join NERT. It’s free and is literally life-saving knowledge.

    Lou Fischer: What advice do you have for women who want to be a firefighter? 

    Chief Jeanine Nicholson: Don’t doubt yourself. Be prepared physically, psychologically and mentally. You must believe in yourself and support each other. This is not just for women; I would say that to queer people, people of color and anyone else that is considering a career as a firefighter. Let me repeat the most important part: support each other.

    Lou Fischer: We got a little off the track of “up close and personal” so I’ll close with some personal questions.   Favorite color? Favorite Beatle? Favorite sport to play?

    Chief Jeanine Nicholson: Blue is my favorite color. You need to end your obsession with the Beatles. They broke up 50 years ago. I prefer Marvin Gaye & Robert Smith from The Cure. My favorite sport to play will always be ice hockey with rugby a close second and maybe a little basketball sometimes.

    Lou Fischer: Thanks for your time. Congratulations on your appointment. So proud of you!

    Chief Jeanine Nicholson: Back at you, my sister! 

    Louise (Lou) Fischer is a Former Co-Chair of the Board of Directors for the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club and has served as an appointed and elected Delegate for the State Democratic Party. She is a proud graduate of the Emerge California Women’s Democratic Leadership program, was a San Francisco Commissioner and has served in leadership positions in multiple nonprofit and community-based organizations.