How San Francisco's new Fire Chief plans to build a better Bay Area

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- There's a new boss at the San Francisco Fire Department.

Her friends call her Nine (pronounced neen), but you may know her as Chief Jeanine Nicholson. Mayor London Breed swore Chief Nicholson in at City Hall on Monday.

RELATED: City of Firsts: San Francisco swears in first LGBT Fire Chief

"I'm grateful and honored that Mayor Breed put me in this position and that I have so much support from the men and women of this department.

Chief Nicholson sat down with ABC7 news reporter, Kate Larsen, to discuss her priorities as the City's new top firefighter.

"Number one-- the homelessness and opioid crisis within the city of San Francisco is huge for us," she said.

Chief Nicholson, says drug-related medical calls, have gone way up over the past five years. Nicholson is the first licensed paramedic to become chief of SFFD. She says she hopes to hire more paramedics, but also work with homeless services in San Francisco to reduce medical emergencies.

"We do fire prevention, why don't we do EMS prevention? So we can get ahead of the problem, get ahead of the high call volume and help people at the same time get into services."

"At the drop of the hat we're ready to go," said Chief Nicholson about city-wide emergencies. "We have a disaster operations plan, within the fire department, and we are resourced and ready to go, but we can always, always do better."

We've all been warned about the next big earthquake, but Nicholson wonders how many people are really prepared. She says she hopes to ramp up the department's Neighborhood Emergency Response Team, or NERT program.

"To get more people in the city trained to take care of themselves and their families," in the event of a city-wide emergency.

Nicholson started as a firefighter with SFFD 25 years ago, when she was 29 years old. She was out then and is out now, as the first openly gay chief of the department.

"I'm like your stereotypical lesbian, with two dogs and a cat," she exclaimed.

Nicholson says it was never a problem for her to be out in the department, but says, "it's different for gay men in the department, it has been over the years. I think it's gotten so much better, so much easier for everybody to be out."

"I definitely feel that people are looking to me, as the first out person to be a public safety chief in this city and so I think it's really important and it is groundbreaking on some levels. But on the other side of things, it's San Francisco, like yeah, of course. We are trail blazers"

She loves sports and the outdoors and says she's in a serious relationship, "The fire department is currently my significant other and I am super happy about that right now," Chief Nicholson said with a smile.

Chief Nicholson is also a breast cancer survivor.

"Within the San Francisco Fire Department, pre-menopausal women, so women in their 40's, were getting breast cancer at sort of an astronomical rate," she said.

So Nicholson, spends a lot of time working to make firefighting conditions and equipment healthier for all firefighters.

"Were doing studies with our firefighters who go to the wildfires, taking blood and urine from them to see what kind of chemicals they're coming into contact with. We're working with vendors to make our equipment more safe for us, because some of our turnout equipment, the gear that we wear to fires, has toxic chemicals within it. So, we're working to change the industry."

Fifteen-percent of SFFD's firefighters are women, a higher percentage of women than any other fire department in the U.S. Nicholson is proud of that, but would also like to recruit more young people from San Franciscans to the fire department.

"We're starting bringing fire science to the high schools, we have an EMT class in one of the high schools. I want us to do a better job of that in multiple different neighborhoods."

Nicholson is originally from New York, but says she loves San Francisco and the firefighters in her department. "They really are my family and I want to do the best that I can for them, because the best that I do for them, means that they can do even better for the City and County of San Francisco."

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