Fire chief retires after 27 years, with many ‘firsts’

Pryor said she looks forward to spending time with her family and “de-stressing” in her retirement. Leadership, she said, “is about empowering people regardless of how they feel about me. I try to be as inclusive as I can, and I try to be a consensus-builder in that process.” Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Looking back on her nearly three decades at the Berkeley Fire Department, Chief Debra Pryor said her philosophy has been to tune out her detractors, take the support that’s been offered to her, and keep the spotlight focused on her team, rather than on herself.

Pryor, 51, retires Friday, Dec. 28, from the Berkeley Fire Department. Deputy Chief Gil Dong will serve as interim chief on a temporary basis.

She’s been a trailblazer in her field, as the nation’s second black female fire chief. In Berkeley, she was the city’s first female firefighter, paramedic and paramedic supervisor, and the first woman to hold the titles of lieutenant, captain, assistant chief, deputy chief and fire chief.

Pryor said it’s an aspect of her work that, frankly, she doesn’t think much about. She describes her job as “managing my resources to get all the things accomplished that need to be accomplished.”

“I would much rather shine the light on others than myself,” she added. “It keeps me humble.”

Pryor began at the Berkeley Fire Department in 1985. A recent college graduate, she was working a temp job doing some filing for the city’s rent board. On a morning break one day, she came across a recruiter sitting in the City Hall lobby, on Milvia Street.

“He had a little sign on his desk, and his table said ‘firefighter,'” she recalled. “I said: ‘Can women do that?’ I had never seen a woman firefighter.”

Pryor said her brief conversation with the recruiter “really got me jazzed and excited.”

“I had just graduated. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do next,” she said. She saw the fire department as a chance to “give back to a community that had nurtured me as a child.”

Locally grown

Pryor said she had “a very rich childhood” growing up in Berkeley. Her family had ended up in the Bay Area seeking opportunity, she said. Her maternal grandfather, from Mississippi, had worked on the railroads. He later got a job in the Richmond shipyards and moved to a home in south Berkeley. Pryor’s father had been in the Army; her parents met on Treasure Island when her mother was working as a secretary there.

Pryor’s mother later worked for the Berkeley Unified School District as a home school liaison; she signed Pryor up, when she was a kindergartner, for the district’s “first in the nation racial integration program” in the late 60s.

“I was one of three African-American kids in my class,” Pryor told the Oakland Tribune. “That didn’t mean anything to me at the time. But it was the kind of experience that prepared me to be successful and to be OK with being different from others. I had countless experiences later in life where I was the only woman and the only African-American, and I had the courage and the confidence to lead, speak up and to have an opinion that was different than others.”

The early days

After speaking with the fire department recruiter, Pryor said she learned everything she could about the job and the test to get hired, which includes a rigorous physical exam.

She visited fire stations, and found herself “knocking on doors, talking to people doing the job.”

Pryor trained hard, building her upper body strength and endurance, and “using body mechanics that worked for me as a woman” to succeed. She made sure she understood what the required tasks involved.

Women typically tend to be less strong than men, but the fire department’s fitness test for men and women is the same for both genders.

“We don’t have fires for the women and fires for the men,” she said, with a chuckle. “It’s the same standard.”

She likened her training to being left-handed.

“You just have to do some things differently,” she said. “That, and just practicing.”

An “advocate of change”

When Pryor started at the Berkeley Fire Department, basic privacy issues were among the things she tried to improve. Firefighters in Berkeley slept in dorm-style situations and shared bathrooms.

Pryor said she didn’t mind the accommodations, but over time made minor changes, such as hanging up privacy curtains, and coming up with a sign system for the bathroom when she planned to take a shower.

“It was easy, to be perfectly honest,” she said. “Instead of complaining, it was just about being an advocate for change.”

Throughout her career, there have been people who believed in her, but also people who said she wouldn’t succeed.

“I have always had doubters, I guess,” she said. “I just have always believed in not focusing on negative energy, or negative comments. It’s been about really having my mind made up on what I want to accomplish and how I want to accomplish it, and seeking support rather than listening to the negative stuff.”

Improvements over time

Over the years, conditions in the fire house have improved. All the stations have been retrofitted, and include private sleeping quarters and separate bathroom facilities.

Pryor said she’s watched as Berkeley Fire developed its own ambulance service, and trained more of its firefighters as paramedics. She described the advances in emergency medicine and technology as “pretty significant.” The fire department, for example, now uses electronic reporting for patient care reports.

On the hiring side, there have also been changes, she said, with more women and minorities in the fire service in general, as well as in key leadership roles.

It’s the people, both in her department and in the community, that she said she’s most proud of, looking back.

“It’s an awesome organization with talented individuals,” she said, of the fire department. “I’m proud to have had the opportunity to select many of them, to promote many of them and empower them in the work that they do.”

Pryor said she’s also been proud to see the widespread community support, in the form of the passage of various tax measures, for the efforts of the Berkeley Fire Department.

Starting a life of leisure, at least for now

Pryor will retire with a $170,000 annual pension. She said she’s looking forward to “de-stressing” and spending time with her new husband. (She married a Berkeley police officer in the fall.)

“I plan on relaxing and enjoying life, and spending more time with family,” she said. “I’m a newlywed. I’m not going to jump into another job anytime soon.”

Pryor said she loves to travel, noting many trips on safari in south and east Africa. Still on her wish list is a trip to Namibia, in south Africa, to see the elephants, she said.

“I’m just kind of looking forward to getting back there,” she said. “It’s just incredibly awesome.”

Fire Chief Debra Pryor: It’s important not to forget [10.14.11]
New fire equipment can shoot water from bay to hills [10.21.10]
On Saturday: Berkeley practices for a major earthquake [05.18.12]
Nine firefighters are promoted in Berkeley ceremony [04.02.12]
Eight Berkeley firefighters promoted at pinning ceremony [02.21.11]

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  • CPA

    I wish her all the best. She played by the rules & succeeded. But dang, $170k a year for life starting at 51 is a lot! Berkeley taxpayers had to come with more than $3.6M to fund that.

  • y_p_w

    It’s supposed to be made of payments while one is working that are invested, but if the investments don’t pan out, the annuity is guaranteed.

  • stephanie

    when are we going to stop this insanity? we let our public servants use “public service” to milk us dry…170,000 a year? Enough. Stop this insanity. I don’t care what anyone here says. It’s outrageous. Everyone here please call your Berkeley city council to abolish pensions and retirement plans for all public employees.

  • Hackreporter

    Smart for her she lives in Concord and enjoys nice and low property taxes. If she is even smarter still she will move to Florida and avoid state income tax on her 170k a year.

  • Bezd101

    “as the nation’s second black female fire chief”.. Hmm I have a Black computer.. But gee I think she would prefer to be called African-American. Oh wait she did say “I was one of three African-American kids in my class”. I expect better from Berkeleyside.

  • Concerned Berkeley

    I agree with CPA. This is an example of our economic issues. Retiring at age 51? Really? With the pay and health care benefits which most of us cannot afford? Get real.

  • I’m Jes’ Sayin’

    The quality of staff in my experience is very low. If pay scales are lowered, what on earth will we end up with for city workers?

  • CPA

    Berkley public safety employees, including fire staff, have the full cost borne by the city. It’s true that the city is supposed to bank that while the employee is working, but that changes nothing. The taxpayers are still funding the entire thing.

    Other employees do pay a portion. That can range from 13% to 24% of the total cost. Taxpayers have to pay the rest, by far the majority.

  • Worker

    Ever read those stories about zillions of qualified people applying for city & state jobs? Those are proof that the pay & benefits are more than enough.

  • emraguso

    The term “black” is standard AP Style, and can be used interchangeably with African-American (assuming someone is an American of African descent).
    AP Style is the standard style for newspapers, and also what we use at Berkeleyside.
    The only exception is if someone has a particular preference for one term or the other. I did ask the chief to take a look at the story and she did not indicate any issue with this usage.

  • Cassandra

    Possibly we would end up with staff who really wish to work for the residents of Berkeley rather than feathering their own nests and laughing all the way to the bank.

  • I’m Jes’ Sayin’

    Are you saying that lowering the pay scale – assuming that could be done under existing union agreements – would actually attract better candidates and result in their being hired? If so, how would this work?

  • EBGuy

    This is just a drop in the bucket when you look at the big picture of $5k of unfunded retirement liabilities that every man, woman, and child in Berkeley owes city workers. I’m sure we can close another pool to make up for any shortfalls. I’m just worried that this is not sustainable over the long term. What happens when we run out of pools to close?

  • Oh, cry me a river

  • Oh,here we go with the PC crap all over again. When blacks stop being so damn sentive and act proud like any other race. The racists will lose energy and interest , because they won’t be able to generate the same kind of emotional response. Call me black,negro,afro-cuban whatever LOL. I am still smart and heading places in life.

  • Mbfarrel

    The problem of pensions isn’t the fault of their unions; the unions are doing their job. Get the best deal for their members. The city council is responsible for agreeing to the contracts. And Berkeley residents elect the council.
    Study Pogo.

  • Stopthebuck

    $170k retirement at 51. Yet another fine example for the world to see how pathetic the B.C.C has become.

  • I’m Jes’ Sayin’

    The statement referred to the possible consequences of lowering rather than raising compensation.

  • guest

    Are you saying that Bezd101 is black? According to the author, Chief Pryor did not object to anything in the article.

  • Vladislav_Davidzon

    Are you kidding? How does most of America function? Let the market dictate salaries, not some union contract.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Exactly right. And unfortunately we never have any real alternatives. Ours is a political monoculture in need of a strong, loyal opposition.

  • bgal4

    r u nuts, have you ever seen the lines to apply for firefighter jobs?

    how do you think NYC improved public safety, they hired a sufficient numbers of cops, entry level is around $40,000, Berkeley is $70,000. Oakland suffers the same disparity, community needs suffer while the union and council protect unsustainable wages.

    CA superior court judges are paid $170,000 salary, they do not receive full salary in retirement.

    Check with the Fire and Disaster commissioners to learn is the fire chief delivered any real results.

  • guest

    Uh, a contract dictates what must be done. That is how American civil law actually works.

  • Kana

    $3.6M? How about close to $6M if she lives into her 80’s? How can someone that young can retire? I assume that she wanted to avoid the pitfalls of the new California pension reform law that will take effect starting January 1st, but to let someone retire at 51 for $170,000 means that we, Berkeley tax payers are in for a hugh hole in our pocket. Is this sustainable?

  • guest


  • PragmaticProgressive

    In another thread, one of the fire fighters argued that they get early retirement since they have to lift heavy gear when fighting fires.

    Now, the chief probably hasn’t lifted anything heavier than a coffee mug since she got the top spot, so why that early retirement provision applies to her is a mystery.

    For the rest of the department, I think there should be generous disability coverage (with controls for abuse) for people in dangerous lines of work. But early retirement at very high payout levels is not sustainable.

    Further, given that BFD doesn’t actually do that much fire fighting any more — they’re basically a paramedic squad with a small sideline in fire fighting — the whole department should be overhauled and right sized.

    In any event, it looks like we’ll all be paying for the former chief’s safari adventures for decades to come. Her husband’s too, since he’s with BPD.

  • Vladislav_Davidzon

    The city needs to declare bankruptcy and start from scratch. It’s not rocket science. These absurd contracts need to go.

  • Vladislav_Davidzon

    You’re stuck on the contract. I am stuck on the union corruption part.

  • iicisco

    It will be “awesome” won’t it! I find it rather amusing that the majority of the comments here are about her retirement income. Instead of bidding her farewell, I see rabble rabble rabble. All talk and no action.

  • iicisco

    Just FYI the minimum for an ACFD FF-PM is ~$87,530, the minimum for Oakland is ~83,800 and for Berkeley 80,430.

  • leilah

    No, Bezd101, you have a black computer. The only problem with Berkeleyside’s statement, as quoted, is failing to capitalize “Black”.

  • Really?

    So this makes it okay?

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Just FYI, that is false.

    For Berkeley it is 90,477 thanks to the paramedic differential (which is higher than in any other department in the area):

  • iicisco

    The problem with that is what about the FF’s hired prior to Jan 1st, 2010? No Paramedic license was required. Nor is it required to be kept up if you were appointed before that date.

  • b0b

    wow, $170k for for ~30 years makes no sense.

  • b0b

    maybe the quality of the staff is so low because it’s so difficult to fire city employees?

  • The Sharkey

    Let’s be honest for a minute here – Public workers aren’t hired based on qualifications or education, they’re hired based on personal connections and minority status.

  • The Sharkey

    Retiring at 51 on a pension that’s more than double what the average dual-income American household makes?

    This is obscene. No wonder we have some of the worst roads in the Nation when we’re pissing away our money like this.

  • guest

    “The Sharkey’s” opinion notwithstanding, how did they get there in the first place?

    It seems that there is a “chain of command mentality” in which workers who are not at the very top level are required to adhere to ill-conceived procedures at pain of censure and who knows what else. I once had to go to a department head ($200K or more per year) to get a $150 decision made. If that really is the way things operate, I guess it doesn’t matter how good the workers are.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    There’s also plenty of low grade corruption among Berkeley city workers. Notice, for example, the number of city employees with Area C RPP stickers who do not, in fact, live in Area C.

  • Sandy Brown

    BFD. Funny, those three letters mean something else besides Berkeley Fire Department.

  • Gwest

    Actually taxpayers pay all of the employment costs including pension contributions.
    It’s just a matter of accounting.

  • guest

    “I am stuck on the union corruption part.”

    Surprising you’re not ‘stuck’ on the City’s incompetent (corrupt, perhaps) contract negotiation.

  • Vladislav_Davidzon

    The reason I say it’s corrupt is because the people negotiating the contract are beneficiaries of the same contract; and the people approving the contract depend on the votes of the same union employees to stay in power. It’s a vicious cycle that needs to be broken — the city needs to declare bankruptcy and cancel this nonsense; and it will, inevitably.

  • Hilldah

    Vladislav, I don’t know where you come from, bankruptcy? You don’t know what you are taking about. I also find it amusing that everyone here is talking about money and not about the actual subject of this article. How quickly you all forget that these salaries were created during a time when unemployment was low and the City had to compete with the private sector for qualified employees. Don’t blame the pension/pay plans, blame Prop 13.

  • Vladislav_Davidzon

    We cannot afford to continue paying these insane pensions and salaries; and when you cannot afford to pay your bills, you declare bankruptcy. Cities around the country are starting to do this right and left — and Berkeley will certainly follow suit eventually.

    The idea that the CIty needs to pay $55,000 to a meter maid is absurdly laughable… that’s not a “competitive” salary for someone who could be equally well qualified to flip burgers at McDonalds.

  • Bill N

    I’m certain that none of these comments mean to imply any “blame” to chief Pryor for retiring when she did at the retirement income that she is due. Congratulations on 27 years of hard work. That said, the ability to retire at 51 at (what percentage of her working income?) represents a significant dis-connect between the promises and the available funding in the retirement system. This is something the city and state have known about for several years and I have hoped that Gov Brown would have the political will and courage to propose something significant but, alas, I lose hope. The only way we can change this for the city is to insist on it with our votes for council and that they be willing to hold firm in contract negotiations.

  • The Sharkey

    Assuming she makes it to at least 71, we’re going to be paying her three and a half million dollars to not do any work.

  • The Sharkey

    Don’t forget that any would-be politico who tries to change things will be blown out of the water by union organizations that use their dues to scuttle any campaigns that talk about trimming pensions.

  • The Sharkey

    I have never understood why we allow them to completely retire at ridiculous pensions rather than having them move into office/administrative jobs. There are a lot of jobs around a firehouse – or the City at large – that don’t require lifting heavy gear or running into a burning building.

    If we’re going to pay someone $170,000.00 per year, it would be nice if we could get them to at least answer some e-mails or make copies or something.