Fighting Fires With People: Seven Oakland Firefighters Talk About the Work They Do (Part 2)

a collage of seven diverse Oakland firefighters
Seven Oakland firefighters chat with Oakland Voices about their career choice and what they do.

This past summer, two Oakland firefighters came to my apartment building to get a replacement key for the knox box, which is outside all multiple unit buildings, to allow firefighters to access the building in emergencies. Striking up a conversation with them, I asked if they had ever been at any of the wildfires, or other emergencies far from Oakland, such as Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana. This brief conversation piqued my curiosity and I had a chance to interview seven of our local Oakland Fire Department firefighters. Like many people, I often see fire engines in front of buildings which are not on fire, and I learned that firefighting is only one part of what firefighters do.

I learned that the workforce is fairly diverse: about 36% of Oakland’s firefighters are white, 24% are Black, 21% are Latinx, and 13% are Asian, with the remainder Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, or multiracial. We have a total of 452 firefighters right now, according to the fire department. While more women are joining the ranks, the vast majority of Oakland’s firefighters, at 92%, are men. Eight person of Oakland’s sworn firefighters are women or non-binary. Nationally, less than 5% of firefighters are women, according to the National Fire Protection Association, so Oakland’s ranks are still more diverse.

Below, I chatted with some of Oakland Fire Department’s firefighters to learn more about what they do and what drives them to do their work.

Robert Lipp, Assistant Chief of Technical Operations, 31 years as Oakland Firefighter (Recently Retired)

Robert Lipp has been an Oakland firefighter for 31 years. Lipp, who grew up in Oakland, began as an intern, including doing ride-alongs with an ambulance company. He also took classes at Chabot College, completing the firefighter classes and getting work experience. “Once I decided to become a firefighter, Oakland was always the dream. I was fortunate to be hired in May 1990.”

Lipp recently retired. Prior to retiring, his job was managing Special Operations Teams (Hazardous Materials, Technical Rescue, and Water Rescue), Oakland International Airport Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting Team, Training Division, FEMA Urban Search and Rescue California Task Force Four, Department Safety, and Internal Investigations for Sworn Personnel.

Lipp was a part of the firefighting efforts during the Oakland hills fire in October 1991. “All the outside fire departments sending help was inspiring. The actions of many Oakland firefighters were incredible and truly lifesaving,” Lipp said. 

Lipp adds that firefighters are often sent outside of their area to help during wildfires and more. “I have been deployed throughout the state for wildfires, and throughout the country post-disaster. It was great to be able to go to other areas and help the communities there in their time of need. I experienced getting help after Loma Prieta and the Oakland hills fire, so it was nice to be able to be on the giving end of that help.” 

Tanisha Tucker, Lieutenant, 20 years as Oakland firefighter

Tanisha Tucker is a Lieutenant whose responsibility is to supervise and lead a crew, as well as cover administrative duties. In addition, Tucker serves as a liaison between the Battalion chief and crew.

Tucker knew that she wanted to help others, and started to looking into EMT training. One of the career paths was to become a firefighter. 

“I quickly discovered how much I enjoyed the material, the people and the field. I also learned that firefighting was something I enjoyed and became very passionate. I soon joined a volunteer program in the City of Milpitas for two years. I visited stations, talked to many firefighters, and spent time in Oakland, which increased my passion. While working in Milpitas, I decided to test for Oakland and was hired in 2002.”

No day is the same. Sleep deprivation is a byproduct of the job with which all firefighters have to learn to cope. To wake up from a deep sleep to getting dressed and responding to a car accident, fire, etc. is not normal but we learn how to adjust.”  

Tanisha Tucker, Lieutenant, 20 years as Oakland firefighter

Tucker says one of the unique aspects of being a firefighter is their schedules, and how each day is different. “No day is the same. Sleep deprivation is a byproduct of the job with which all firefighters have to learn to cope. To wake up from a deep sleep to getting dressed and responding to a car accident, fire, etc. is not normal but we learn how to adjust. We also have types of unique training–such as walking up the piping of the Bay Bridge–being part of the President and VP detail, assisting with the Warriors parade.”

Tucker has also helped with the wildfires, and is a different experience than anything else.

“Fighting wildfires was a surreal experience and definitely took me out of my comfort zone. Seeing the massive plume of smoke and knowing that we may be the only crew in a vast area is initially a little unsettling. But once the adrenaline and knowledge kicks in, the nervousness subsides. Staying up all night and sleeping in the engine was very different as well. It’s also a great experience working with firefighters from different fire departments.”

Christopher Foley, Captain, 20 Years With the Oakland Fire Department

Growing up in Piedmont, Christopher Foley joined the Oakland Fire Department after six years working in Emeryville. Foley was initially interested in becoming a paramedic, but soon pivoted to becoming a firefighter, which often involves paramedic services.

Foley says he fell into this line of work initially starting as a volunteer firefighter. “My very first ride along was in Salem, Oregon. I started as a volunteer firefighter. It appealed to my hands-on nature. I liked the idea of having some hands-on work.”

Working as a firefighter can be extremely rewarding. “I remember the very first time I felt like we made a positive impact on the life versus death outcome. The first time you alter the outcome of someone’s existence. It is a remarkable feeling, to do it in a critical situation.”

However, not all of the work ends up on a positive note. Foley notes there have been some circumstances where he and the other firefighters had not been able to save a life. “You are on the spot. There is no Plan B a lot of the time.”

Like many of the other firefighters interviewed, Foley has helped with some of the big California wildfires. It’s unlike any other type of firefighting experience, being in nature with Mother Nature and often uncontrollable elements. “In the wildland environment, it’s a whole different set of challenges. The really scary times are when the wind is blowing. You’re just a speck in the way of the massively powerful; you stay the heck out of the way. We can still make an impact, when environmental conditions aren’t possible to do something about. Can we slow down some of the destruction?”

The really scary times are when the wind is blowing. You’re just a speck in the way of the massively powerful; you stay the heck out of the way. We can still make an impact, when environmental conditions aren’t possible to do something about. Can we slow down some of the destruction?”

Christopher Foley, Captain, 20 Years With the Oakland Fire Department

Among challenges for the fire department, Foley cites homeless encampments, noting some that are full of scrap lumber that are fire hazards. Some, he says, have fires on a weekly basis. “The homeless encampments are big health and safety challenges.”

Nevertheless, Foley is motivated to continue. “It’s the most challenging opportunity to impact the greater good wherever you work. You are faced with unlimited puzzles on a daily basis. No two days are the same. It’s really a unique opportunity to impact society for the better and challenging yourself to deal with new situations. No two fires or medical emergencies are the same. You have the opportunities to challenge yourself  on a daily basis.”

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Read Part 1 of our Oakland firefighters profiles here.

Correction: The original article stated that 83 percent of Oakland’s firefighters are men, which included non-sworn members. We have updated the article to reflect that 8 percent of Oakland’s firefighters are women or non-binary, not 17 percent.

About Debora Gordon

Debora Gordon is a writer, artist, educator and non-violence activist. She has been living in Oakland since 1991, moving here to become a teacher in the Oakland Unified School District. In all of these roles, Debora is interested in developing a life of the mind. “As a mere human living in these simultaneously thrilling and troubled times,” Debora says, “I try to tread lightly, live thoughtfully, teach peace, and not take myself too seriously.” View all posts by Debora Gordon →

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