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Sara Boone has the Heart

I am always interested in women who are comfortable with themselves, who lead, who love their work. Maybe this woman spoke to me because my oldest son is a firefighter, or maybe because I just loved her spunk and what I perceived as a look of determination and dedication on her face! Thank you Chief Boone.

Portland Oregon's first firefighting services were provided by Pioneer Fire Engine Company no. 1, established in 1850 by Thomas Dryer, founder of The Oregonian newspaper. It consisted of 37 volunteers wearing red shirts and operating a single hand pump. A fire at a steam mill in 1853 illustrated the need for an organized firefighting force, and on July 29, 1853, the Vigilance Hook and Ladder Company no. 1 was created, consisting of 36 volunteers. Less than a month later, 22 volunteers formed the Willamette Engine Company no. 1, and the first engine house in Portland was built on a donated lot on Yamhill Street.

They have come a long way since 1853! Portland’s new fire chief was sworn in this summer, 24 years after she joined the bureau. Born in California, Sara Boone was adopted by a couple from Portland, and graduated from Lincoln High with a plan to pursue a career in athletics. Instead, she became Portland’s first black female firefighter. She worked in many roles in her over twenty year tenure with this department including battalion chief in 2014.

Boone is the first African American and second woman to serve as Portland Fire & Rescue’s chief, she’s been lauded as an advocate for colleagues, a cool head in times of stress, and a leader with a tireless commitment to service. Said City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty upon her appointment: “I am confident that she will make sure our city is safe and cared for under her watch.”

She was born in 1969 when there was no internet or messaging to let her know that being a firefighter was even a remote possibility and even books or stories were sparse on offering non traditional career choices for women As a young child growing up, she observed that you hear many negative connotations associated either with race or with gender. In her younger years she was really striving to find who she was as a person, because what she was hearing and the voices in my head did not match what I believed in my heart.

Her dream was to go on to the Olympics in track and field. In college she had doubts that she would be good enough for the Olympics and settled on education. She became a high school PE teacher and coach. She recalls that firefighting was not even on her radar but one day during a building inspection at Marshall High School where she was student teaching she struck up a conversation with a fireman. He told her that the fire service was in the process of recruiting women and underserved, underrepresented populations. The seed was planted. Over the next few days she though, this is real, and this totally fits who I am. She realized she could be a role model but she would also enjoy the physical challenge of the job. She says she does not know how or why, but it spoke to her. She took the test and did an apprenticeship. She knew she had found her calling.

She recalls that she had never experienced anything like the training before, and remembers that super upper body as well as aerobic strength was required. The training pushed her further and further at a time when there were only four women in training. Her goal was to change her life in order to help others. She knew her life was going to be on the line every day she answered a call. Was she scared? YES! But she never lost sight of the fact that there was a bigger purpose to her life.

Boone said being a woman of color in such a white- and male-dominated field has been challenging but rewarding. Overall, she said, the fire bureau is “like family. My oldest son is a firefighter who just made 20 years on the force and he feels the same way, it’s a family, but in his case a brotherhood. His unit has no women.

One of the goals she said she has for the bureau is not only to improve its service to the community, but the staff’s work culture. “We always talk about the internal, or the fire service work culture, and our external mission,” Boone said. “But I believe how we treat each other internally is a reflection of how we treat people externally.“What I would like to see as a goal is that we really develop competencies when it comes to interpersonal skill sets, when it comes to communication, when it comes to equity.” Boone also said she wants to encourage anyone regardless of their background to join Portland Fire. “Today, with Title IX, you have young women competing in sports at the highest level and doing CrossFit,” she said. “So, if they have the heart to serve, why wouldn’t they step through the door?”

Portland Commissioner, JoAnn Hardesty said in a news release that both Boone’s technical knowledge and commitment to the community informed her appointment for fire chief.“Chief Boone is well-respected throughout the bureau and we have a great collaborative relationship. I know that she has the vision and experience to lead the bureau as it takes on new challenges. I am confident that she will make sure our city is safe and cared for under her watch.”

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