It’s not lost on Oaklanders that in the midst of a pandemic, the city has changed for the better in some small ways. But there are still plenty of problems facing law enforcement and the Oakland Fire Department (OFD), including issues of race and equity, and a recent uptick in fires at homeless encampments.
Hoodline interviewed OFD Interim Chief Melinda Drayton this week, regarding a few issues in the city including emergency response and preparedness, and the new Police Chief LeRonne L. Armstrong. Drayton has led the department throughout the last year, following the March 2020 resignation of former chief Darin White, who left to take a job in San Rafael just before the pandemic lockdowns began.
Over the weekend, Hoodline also spoke Zac Unger, President, International Association of Firefighters, Local 55, who had a slightly different take on Oakland’s “change for the better” storyline. Overall, though, the Town seems to be working together across departments to bridge the gap to the pandemic's end.
Among the OFD's immediate duties is its role in aiding FEMA’s efforts around the COVID-19 vaccination rollout at the Oakland Coliseum and elsewhere, given that the OFD is connected to the Governor's Office of Emergency Services (Cal-OES).
"We’re within region 9 of FEMA, and we have a very close relationship with Cal-OES," says Chief Drayton. "They reached out to see where we thought there was a good alignment within the community so that we could supplement the big effort at the Coliseum or other of the larger super pods around the Bay Area. To try to get mobile teams out, get into harder hit communities, doing a lot of neighborhood outreach.”
The Chief went on to say, “We have also helped stand-up vaccination clinics throughout the city.”
The OFD has feet on the street in the event of any emergency, including COVID-19, and their response includes providing vaccinations via the department's own EMTs and paramedics.
Yet the OFD is also tackling another major issue, which is the race and equity conversation happening in law enforcement departments nationwide, and the department is taking steps to tackle these issues.
“We have the first Race and Equity Department in a city structure in the nation," says Chief Drayton. "They are a mighty team of three or four individuals that have literally their own stand-alone department in the city. And they’re basically a support role to provide guidance to broaden people's lens of how they’re looking at budget, policies, hiring, retention, promotion opportunities across the city.”
She added, "They work with department heads who have interest in standing with the Race and Equity team.”
Oakland also has a new chief of police who has created a lot of buzz, both because of his qualifications and his long history in Oakland. And the firefighters union is hoping an equally qualified person with deep roots in the Town will be named to head the OFD.
Local 55 President Zac Unger said of Chief Armstrong, "I know with the police chief, I know he’s new in the police chief’s job, but he’s not new to Oakland. He’s had a long history with Oakland. And I would hope that we can pick somebody like that for the fire chief as well."
Drayton said that she and Chief Armstrong plan to work together and she reiterated that she, “Completely supports Chief Armstrong and his executive team and what is a very complicated and nuanced position. He is stepping into an incredibly challenging role.”
But Unger has some complaints to raise, and says that budget cuts in the OFD, and recent homeless encampment fires both plague the city.
According to Unger, after pushback, there was a budget cut to the OFD by the city that was significantly reduced because of union efforts.
"In the end they only ended up closing 5% of our fire stations, but I am very worried that when the budget cycle comes up again, which is July 1, they’re are going to again try to close fire stations.”
Unger went on to say that fires at homeless encampments are a real issue and that he worries about them the same way that he worries about wildfires.
"I mean it’s literally every day, multiple times a day that we’re going to homeless encampments.”
When all is said and done, Oakland will fight the good fight and has put new leaders in place to make its dream a reality. Town residents can play an active role in supporting the Chief of Police by attending his next town hall online, via social media (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube), on March 24, 2021 at 6 p.m.