BERKELEY — It’s a drizzly cold Tuesday evening and Berkeley Fire Chief Debra Pryor is outside the city’s public safety building talking to a homeless man with two shopping carts piled high with possessions.
The man loops in and out of lucidity, but Pryor doesn’t appear annoyed, pressed for time or afraid. She listens and talks to him, then politely wraps it up and approaches a second man to ask if he needs help deciphering the front desk hours of the police station.
Pryor, 51, is retiring Friday after 27 years in the fire department and 27 years of smashing race and gender barriers: she was the city’s first female firefighter, its first female fire chief and the second black female fire chief in the country behind Rosemary Cloud of East Point, Ga. (Earlier this year Oakland named Teresa Deloach Reed as its fire chief, making her the first black woman fire chief of a major metropolitan city.)
On this rainy Tuesday night in front of Berkeley’s public safety building, Pryor isn’t snug and warm at home with her feet up counting her contributions to humanity or the approximately $170,000 a year city pension she’ll get. She’s outside the city’s public safety building talking to a homeless man, and that suits her fine.
“I see this guy a lot,” Pryor said later. “Regardless of his situation or his mental health status, he’s a member of the community, I’m the fire chief, he recognizes me and I think it is part of my responsibility to listen.”
Lots of firsts
Pryor’s list of firsts in Berkeley are as long as a hook and ladder truck: female firefighter, female paramedic, paramedic supervisor, lieutenant, captain, assistant chief, deputy chief and fire chief.
When you ask her about all her firsts as a black woman, she downplays it.
“I am a leader and I just happen to be a woman and I happen to be African-American,” she said.
Even so, Pryor admits there were other forces at work in Berkeley that helped her along in addition to her confidence and leadership ability.
She credits her mother who was a Berkeley public schools employee, the Berkeley school integration program and a city culture of celebrating diversity for helping her rise to the top in her profession.
Her mother enrolled her in city programs like the summer day camp at San Pablo Park where former City Manager Weldon Rucker was a counselor. She learned to swim at the downtown Berkeley YMCA and attended Cazadero Music Camp founded by a Berkeley High School band director. Most importantly, Pryor said, when she was in kindergarten, her mother volunteered her for the school district’s first in the nation racial integration program before it became official in 1968.
The program fostered in her a sense that she could advance even when she was in a place where she was different. She was bussed from the south side of town bordering Oakland to a school in a white neighborhood off College Avenue.
“I was in kindergarten, so I had no normal,” Pryor said. “I was one of three African-American kids in my class. 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.”
Becoming a firefighter
Pryor was working as a clerk in the city of Berkeley when she was recruited to join the fire department in 1985. At Arizona State University she won a scholarship for shot put and discus, so there was no question in her mind she had the strength to haul a hose up a flight of stairs or use an ax to chop through walls of a burning building.
And she knew if she passed the fire academy, she would become the first woman firefighter in Berkeley, but Pryor said she was more interested in learning how to swing an ax than worrying about how she would handle being the only woman in a male-dominated profession, which she was for a full three years after she was hired.
“I didn’t pay any attention to that stuff,” Pryor said. “There were things that were less convenient because there were no women’s bathrooms, but I could go downstairs and use the officers’ bathrooms. For me, it was like ‘I really have to learn how to swing this ax, and these guys are the ones who can help me do it. I can learn from them.’”
Twenty-seven years later, when Pryor announced her retirement at a recent City Council meeting, she received a standing ovation
“I want to thank you,” said City Councilman Max Anderson, during a short ceremony marking her retirement. “Among many firsts, you paved the way for other people. You left a mark, a legacy and a shining example for other public servants.”
Pryor said she’s not sure what she will do next. At 51, she’s got a lot of time before her. In October, she married a Berkeley police officer.
As she departs, Pryor said she is most proud of her relationship with the city’s firefighters’ union and in implementing a backup firefighting system that can draw water from the bay in a major fire.
Does she have advice to other women thinking about being a firefighter?
“You have to have a true sense of who you are as person,” Pryor said. “You have to have a level of maturity about you. This is not a job for everyone. You see some bad stuff. When that bell hits, you have to come together as team. You can’t be mad at someone or not want to work with someone. You can’t let your personal bias get in the way.”
We honor you, Debra Pryor.