Chief Robert L. Demmons in uniform, 1996. Image courtesy of SFFD.

Robert ‘Bob’ Demmons was born in Dallas, Texas, in 1940 and moved to San Francisco in 1942. Fire Chief Demmons ushered in an era of equitable governance to the San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD). His commitment to achieving racial and gender equality remains an outstanding example of city leadership.

Demmons graduated from the City College of San Francisco and began his career as a firefighter in 1974. The SFFD, which was historically dominated by white men, staffed approximately 1,800 firefighters and only four of them were black. The NAACP started filing legal suits against the department for racially discriminatory hiring practices. Internally, black firefighters led by Demmons banded together to form the San Francisco Black Firefighters Association (SFBFA) in 1972.

Demmons didn’t seek to become a civil rights revolutionary. In an interview with George Cothran from SF Weekly, Demmons stated his activism “wasn’t something I did willingly.” He was inspired to fight on behalf of black firefighters after taking his lieutenant exam in 1978. To his dismay, he found that hiring decisions were motivated by race rather than merit. Filled with determination, Demmons set out to address racial disparities within the SFFD. His journey would solidify his legacy as an effective revolutionary.

Initially, the SFBFA was housed under the umbrella of the Local 798 Fire Union. Due to racial hostilities within the traditional union, however, Demmons and other members of the Black Firefighters Association decided to form an independent union. Demmons, elected to the presidency of the union by his fellow peers, started documenting incidents of racial harassment. They organized picket lines and started publicizing the problematic culture of the SFFD. Notably, Demmons spoke of Station 3 on Polk Street, referring to it as “Johannesburg West.” White firefighters proudly hung a Confederate Flag in the station. Along with this, two minority firefighters found a swastika in their office in 1988, a public act of discrimination which Demmons labeled as a “go to hell” message toward people of color.

Demmons continued to push toward justice within the BFA, inciting a ripple effect within the judicial system by applying severe scrutiny to the SFFD’s exams and claiming that the exams were discriminatory against women and minority groups. In 1987, 9th Federal District Court Judge Marilyn Hall Patel found the SFFD in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and issued a consent decree mandating the hiring of more women and minority firefighters. Even with this case victory, however, Demmons still faced racial strife and hardship because of his role in obtaining the consent decree. In 1991, under Chief Fred Postel, Demmons was appointed as the Assistant Chief of Management Services and was later named Chief of the SFFD in 1996 by Mayor Willie Brown. Chief Demmons was tasked with revolutionizing the department once again.

Throughout his tenure, the fire department staff shifted to become forty percent minority and ten percent women. He was capable of implementing such a rapid demographic shift within the department by reforming the fire department’s hiring practices, namely the H-2 Cadet Program and the Officer Candidate Program. The H-2 Cadet training program eliminated the one-day exam, replacing it with a job training program. The program allowed for the inclusion of racial minorities within the training program, and eliminated the subjective and often racially biased test. The Officer Candidate Program created a promotional examination process for lieutenants and battalion chiefs specifically designed to ensure equal opportunity for advancement for all employees.

Chief Demmons made a series of high-profile and groundbreaking hires during his tenure. He appointed the first African American Fire Marshal, first African American woman Chief Officer, and first Hispanic Assistant Deputy Chief. In January of 1999, the Consent Decree was terminated, in large part because of Chief Demmons’ influence. Chief Bob Demmons’ commitment to civil rights allowed to help reform the San Francisco Fire Department.

Matt Chiodo and Marcelo Swofford

Works Cited

“United States v. City and County of San Francisco, 656 F. Supp. 276.” Justia US Law. 26 Feb 1987.

“About the SFBFA.” San Francisco Black Firefighters Association. 2018.

Cothran, George. “The Fire Next Time.” SF Weekly. 3 Apr 1996.

Campbell, Edward. “Robert L. Demmons” Guardians of the City: Fire Department. 2018.

Epstein, Edward. “Court Ends Oversight of S.F. Fire Department.” SF Chronicle. 3 Dec 1998.

Glover, Malcolm. “Black Firefi ghter: Racial Tensions Still Smoldering.” SF Examiner. 1 Jul 1981.

Sward, Susan. “Brown’s Major Appointments.” SF Chronicle. 9 Jan 1996.

Minton, Torri. “S.F. Firefighters Find Swastika in their Office.” SF Chronicle. 6 Jan 1988.

Zoellner, Tom. “SF Fire Chief Leaves Legacy of Change.” SF Chronicle. 28 Jul 2000.

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