Pryor said she looks forward to spending time with her family and “de-stressing” in her retirement. Leadership, she said, “is about empowering people regardless of how they feel about me. I try to be as inclusive as I can, and I try to be a consensus-builder in that process.” Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Pryor said she looks forward to spending time with her family and “de-stressing” in her retirement. Leadership, she said, “is about empowering people regardless of how they feel about me. I try to be as inclusive as I can, and I try to be a consensus-builder in that process.” Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Looking back on her nearly three decades at the Berkeley Fire Department, Chief Debra Pryor said her philosophy has been to tune out her detractors, take the support that’s been offered to her, and keep the spotlight focused on her team, rather than on herself.

Pryor, 51, retires Friday, Dec. 28, from the Berkeley Fire Department. Deputy Chief Gil Dong will serve as interim chief on a temporary basis.

She’s been a trailblazer in her field, as the nation’s second black female fire chief. In Berkeley, she was the city’s first female firefighter, paramedic and paramedic supervisor, and the first woman to hold the titles of lieutenant, captain, assistant chief, deputy chief and fire chief.

Pryor said it’s an aspect of her work that, frankly, she doesn’t think much about. She describes her job as “managing my resources to get all the things accomplished that need to be accomplished.”

“I would much rather shine the light on others than myself,” she added. “It keeps me humble.”

Pryor began at the Berkeley Fire Department in 1985. A recent college graduate, she was working a temp job doing some filing for the city’s rent board. On a morning break one day, she came across a recruiter sitting in the City Hall lobby, on Milvia Street.

“He had a little sign on his desk, and his table said ‘firefighter,’” she recalled. “I said: ‘Can women do that?’ I had never seen a woman firefighter.”

Pryor said her brief conversation with the recruiter “really got me jazzed and excited.”

“I had just graduated. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do next,” she said. She saw the fire department as a chance to “give back to a community that had nurtured me as a child.”

Locally grown

Pryor said she had “a very rich childhood” growing up in Berkeley. Her family had ended up in the Bay Area seeking opportunity, she said. Her maternal grandfather, from Mississippi, had worked on the railroads. He later got a job in the Richmond shipyards and moved to a home in south Berkeley. Pryor’s father had been in the Army; her parents met on Treasure Island when her mother was working as a secretary there.

Pryor’s mother later worked for the Berkeley Unified School District as a home school liaison; she signed Pryor up, when she was a kindergartner, for the district’s “first in the nation racial integration program” in the late 60s.

“I was one of three African-American kids in my class,” Pryor told the Oakland Tribune. “That didn’t mean anything to me at the time. But it was the kind of experience that prepared me to be successful and to be OK with being different from others. I had countless experiences later in life where I was the only woman and the only African-American, and I had the courage and the confidence to lead, speak up and to have an opinion that was different than others.”

The early days

After speaking with the fire department recruiter, Pryor said she learned everything she could about the job and the test to get hired, which includes a rigorous physical exam.

She visited fire stations, and found herself “knocking on doors, talking to people doing the job.”

Pryor trained hard, building her upper body strength and endurance, and “using body mechanics that worked for me as a woman” to succeed. She made sure she understood what the required tasks involved.

Women typically tend to be less strong than men, but the fire department’s fitness test for men and women is the same for both genders.

“We don’t have fires for the women and fires for the men,” she said, with a chuckle. “It’s the same standard.”

She likened her training to being left-handed.

“You just have to do some things differently,” she said. “That, and just practicing.”

An “advocate of change”

When Pryor started at the Berkeley Fire Department, basic privacy issues were among the things she tried to improve. Firefighters in Berkeley slept in dorm-style situations and shared bathrooms.

Pryor said she didn’t mind the accommodations, but over time made minor changes, such as hanging up privacy curtains, and coming up with a sign system for the bathroom when she planned to take a shower.

“It was easy, to be perfectly honest,” she said. “Instead of complaining, it was just about being an advocate for change.”

Throughout her career, there have been people who believed in her, but also people who said she wouldn’t succeed.

“I have always had doubters, I guess,” she said. “I just have always believed in not focusing on negative energy, or negative comments. It’s been about really having my mind made up on what I want to accomplish and how I want to accomplish it, and seeking support rather than listening to the negative stuff.”

Improvements over time

Over the years, conditions in the fire house have improved. All the stations have been retrofitted, and include private sleeping quarters and separate bathroom facilities.

Pryor said she’s watched as Berkeley Fire developed its own ambulance service, and trained more of its firefighters as paramedics. She described the advances in emergency medicine and technology as “pretty significant.” The fire department, for example, now uses electronic reporting for patient care reports.

On the hiring side, there have also been changes, she said, with more women and minorities in the fire service in general, as well as in key leadership roles.

It’s the people, both in her department and in the community, that she said she’s most proud of, looking back.

“It’s an awesome organization with talented individuals,” she said, of the fire department. “I’m proud to have had the opportunity to select many of them, to promote many of them and empower them in the work that they do.”

Pryor said she’s also been proud to see the widespread community support, in the form of the passage of various tax measures, for the efforts of the Berkeley Fire Department.

Starting a life of leisure, at least for now

Pryor will retire with a $170,000 annual pension. She said she’s looking forward to “de-stressing” and spending time with her new husband. (She married a Berkeley police officer in the fall.)

“I plan on relaxing and enjoying life, and spending more time with family,” she said. “I’m a newlywed. I’m not going to jump into another job anytime soon.”

Pryor said she loves to travel, noting many trips on safari in south and east Africa. Still on her wish list is a trip to Namibia, in south Africa, to see the elephants, she said.

“I’m just kind of looking forward to getting back there,” she said. “It’s just incredibly awesome.”

Fire Chief Debra Pryor: It’s important not to forget [10.14.11]
New fire equipment can shoot water from bay to hills [10.21.10]
On Saturday: Berkeley practices for a major earthquake [05.18.12]
Nine firefighters are promoted in Berkeley ceremony [04.02.12]
Eight Berkeley firefighters promoted at pinning ceremony [02.21.11]

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...