Chief Looks Like A Lady

Commissioner Leonard takes a fire ax to the glass ceiling in choosing a chief for a troubled fire bureau.

Twenty years ago, Portland Fire & Rescue employed only four female firefighters. 

Last week, City Commissioner Randy Leonard stunned many in the bureau by naming one of those four chief.

Fire Marshal Erin Janssens, 47, will be the bureau's first-ever female top officer. 

Leonard's outside-the-box choice flummoxed the bureau's rank and file, who expected the other finalist, Division Chief John Nohr, who commands emergency operations, the bureau's largest, most visible function, to get the job. 

"I think the rank and file puts a lot of stock in operational and technical experience, and Nohr may have an advantage there," says Portland Firefighters Association Local 43 President Jim Forquer, who sat on a seven-member panel that grilled the finalists. "Janssens has strengths in other areas, like communication, that may matter more at City Hall."

She will probably need them. 

Janssens inherits a bureau facing a potential cheating scandal and tougher scrutiny of how fire stations are staffed.

Leonard has ordered an investigation into whether a former senior training officer improperly shared details about the exams firefighters must take to advance in rank and salary. That probe into alleged cheating on exams goes right to the heart of the bureau's clannish nature. 

The new chief isn't part of that tradition.

Janssens joined the bureau in 1988 and worked her way up to her current post, which she's held since 2009.

She is, in many ways, the opposite of the typical Portland firefighter.

Janssens listens to NPR instead of sports radio, and prefers to dine at epicurean restaurants, such as Lincoln and Toro Bravo, rather than chow down at steakhouses.

She counts neither a pickup as her primary vehicle nor any blood relatives as firefighters. (Current Chief John Klum and his predecessor, Dave Sprando, both come from extended firefighting families.) 

Janssens lives in a house she built herself in rural Multnomah County, and she likes to spend time with Knute, her husky-shepherd mix, and her cats, Cumin, Vindaloo and Max. 

But her self-effacing, by-the-book manner does fit with the bureau's low-key culture.

"I had to contemplate it quite a bit whether to apply for the job," she says. "But I felt like it was an opportunity to make a positive difference."

Janssens has risen through the ranks even though she is female and a lesbian. She says neither her gender nor her sexual orientation has created any difficulties for her in her 24 years with the male-dominated bureau.

"That hasn't been an issue at all," she says. "We work together really well in the Fire Bureau."

The Fire Bureau has lagged far behind the city's other large public safety agency, the Portland Police Bureau, in terms of promoting women. Penny Harrington became Portland's first female police chief way back in 1985, and two other women have held the job since then.

And in the Fire Bureau—despite more than a decade of diversity efforts—four out of five of the 700 sworn firefighters are white males.

Leonard knows that better than anyone: He worked for the bureau from 1978 through 2002, including 12 years as union president. 

Leonard is also a student of history and, as his own political career comes to an end next January (he insists he will not run for office again), he is making a choice that will resonate with the broader city, even if it discomforts some firefighters. 

He notes that he has previously chosen minority candidates to head bureaus he directs. But he says Janssens' ability to articulate the bureau's mission—more than diversity concerns—was the main reason he picked her.

"She has an ability to explain in a way that makes people understand why the bureau does what it does," Leonard says.

Janssens is short on details about how she might change the bureau and its culture when she replaces Klum in June. She wants to make better public education about safety issues a top priority. And she'd like to see more diversity in the ranks. 

“I’d like to see us represent the demographics of the community better,” she says.