PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Sara Boone never thought a question about fire extinguishers would change her life.
A Marshall High School P.E. teacher in the early-90s, Boone was on her lunch break when a Portland fire inspector asked her where he could find the nearest extinguishers. The two struck up a conversation, which led to her confessing that she was questioning whether she wanted to be a teacher for the rest of her life.
Then in her early 20s, volunteering and giving back to her community was important to her. But she missed being part of a team. She had spent a large part of her life immersed in athletics, she explained to the stranger, and recently graduated from Boise State University on a track and field scholarship. Boone returned to her hometown to try positively influence kids as her coaches had. But she was discouraged that the help she could offer was limited to the gym.
"At some point he looks at me," Boone said, "and he said, 'Have you ever thought about going into the fire service?'"
Boone was skeptical. She hadn't seen many African-American women as firefighters, and no one in her immediate family worked in the field.
But her parents encouraged her to learn more and she was intrigued by the idea of having a greater impact on her city.
In 1995, Boone became the first Black woman hired by Portland Fire & Rescue. Though there have been barriers she's had to overcome, Boone said, she fell in love with the camaraderie of the fire bureau and helping make Portland better.
After 24 years, Boone was sworn in as chief in August, becoming the first African American to lead Portland's fire bureau in its 136-year existence.
Now 50, she leads Oregon's largest fire and emergency services provider with around 750 employees — in a sector where the demands continue to expand far beyond dousing building fires.
In recent years, Portland firefighters have deployed to California to help battle wildfires, for example. And in Portland, around 80 percent of the calls firefighters respond to are medical related, Boone said. On Nov. 21, the city approved a pilot program that will dispatch a two-person team from the fire bureau to respond to some non-emergency calls in Southeast Portland involving people experiencing homelessness and or having an apparent mental health crisis.
"We're in the midst of a health care crisis and not everybody has a health care provider, but they can call 911," Boone told The Oregonian/OregonLive. "We still have to be technically proficient when it comes to putting out fires, but we also have to carry an entire other system when it comes to medical services, and there's a huge need."
She said she believes her experience over the last quarter century moving up the ranks and working in several different areas of the bureau has helped her understand the agency's strengths and how it can improve.
Boone said some of her goals as the bureau's leader are to improve the health and safety of her members, help make the agency more inclusive internally, increase recruiting in under-represented communities and maintain relationships with other partner agencies to help make the city safer.
"For me, being chief is an amazing honor, but also a reflection of a larger systemic problem that since the inception of Portland Fire this is the first time a person of color sits at the top," Boone said. "I wouldn't be chief of this bureau if I didn't have the internal support from my colleagues. And I think that reflects the dedication, commitment and hard work I put in every year that they recognize who I am as a person."
Boone was born in 1969 in Oakland to a teenage mother and adopted at six months old by a couple living in a nearby part of the Bay Area.
Boone said the couple were stationed there because Boone's adopted father was a member of the Marines. They later moved the family back to their hometown of Portland. Boone and her older brother grew up in Northeast Portland.
As a child, she gravitated toward sports, relishing in competition and physical activity. She practiced ice skating, gymnastics tumbling, soccer and basketball. She excelled most at track and field.
As a Lincoln High School student, Boone dreamed of one day competing in the Summer Olympics. She was a member of the high school track and field team, competing in the javelin, hurdle events, long jump and on the 4 x 400 relay team. She earned all-state and all-American honors in track and field.
Boone was recruited to Boise State as a javelin thrower and also competed in the heptathlon in college. Her competitive athletic career ended after she graduated with a bachelor's degree in secondary education.
"There was a self-realization that I couldn't compete at the highest level and then you go through a journey of trying to rebuild what your identity is," Boone said. "For me, I didn't know, because sports was everything to me."
She moved back to Portland and began student teaching at Marshall High School.
When Boone met the fire inspector, she said he suggested that she join the bureau's firefighter apprenticeship program. It was a new initiative targeting women and people of color to teach them over six months about the fire service and to provide basic emergency medical technician certification. It was meant to be a pathway to getting enrolled in the fire academy and hired by the Portland Fire Bureau.
With encouragement from the fire inspector and her parents, Boone applied and was one of 24 accepted into the first class.
Wearing 50 pounds of equipment and climbing a ladder up a six-story tower during training with no safety harness, she questioned for the first time whether she should continue pursuing firefighting.
"I remember thinking, 'I don't think I'm afraid of heights,' but I'd also never been 50, 60 feet in the air on the outside of a building before," Boone said.
"But there was an internal voice that was resonating louder that kept me going because some day I knew there could be someone at the end of the ladder that needs my help."
Boone was one of 12 people to graduate from the apprenticeship program. Two years after her conversation about extinguishers, Boone was hired as a Portland firefighter. There were four women firefighters in the bureau at the time, she said.
She'd go on to gain leadership roles in the bureau's safety, operations, medical service and training divisions and be promoted to battalion chief in 2014, the bureau's first African-American chief officer.
Upon joining the bureau, Boone said she found the sense of teamwork she'd loved in sports. You develop a special bond with others when you're putting your life in their hands, she said, and that trust is earned both ways.
She credits communication and listening for helping her navigate the agency.
"We do things as a team, it's the core of who we are," Boone said. "I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for my peers."
Boone was a 2019 Exceptional Wonder Woman awardee this spring. The award recognizes female City of Portland employees who've excelled as role models and mentors. In a letter nominating Boone for the award, Battalion Chief Dan Buckner wrote that Boone drove to the scene of a house fire while off duty in August 2018 to check on a firefighter whose breathing apparatus failed while he was deep inside a building.
Boone happened to have been listening to the bureau's radio traffic at the time and knew her colleague was in distress.
Buckner said she also went back to the office after the fire and provided advice on how to document the malfunction. She then updated Buckner on the investigation of why the equipment failed.
"We don't always see this kind of commitment from our command staff and I can't tell you how much I appreciated her efforts," Buckner wrote. "It is clear that she takes her position and the associated responsibilities seriously. More importantly it was very clear to me that she cares deeply about our members and their safety."
Mike Myers, Portland's previous fire chief, said Boone was instrumental in helping get funding for new breathing apparatuses replaced this year. Being fire chief is a round-the-clock, high pressure, high demand job "where things can shift at a moment's notice," he said. He described Boone as an experienced, well-rounded leader who has earned widespread respect throughout Portland's fire agency.
"She's a compassionate person, loves being in Portland and working on some of the harder projects that the fire bureau faces. And she's a very passionate chief officer," said Myers, who is now director of Portland's Bureau of Emergency Management. "I've always been impressed with her. She's the person you would want leading a bureau."
During Boone's swearing-in ceremony, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said Boone initially wasn't interested in leading the entire bureau, believing she could be more of an asset to the agency elsewhere. Hardesty, who oversees the fire bureau, said Boone's colleagues convinced the veteran firefighter otherwise and the next time she spoke to Boone, she was interested in how to apply for the position.
Hardesty told The Oregonian/OregonLive that she believes in Boone's vision and experience to lead the bureau forward.
"I appreciate Chief Boone's proactive, community health-driven vision for the fire bureau," Hardesty said. "Nationally, the nature of firefighting is changing, and Chief Boone is taking Fire & Rescue into a future that reflects that change."
On the third floor of Portland Fire & Rescue's downtown administrative headquarters, 23 black and white framed portraits of the bureau's fire chiefs line a wall. Boone walks by the photos daily on the way to her office. Her picture isn't there.
A framed mirror occupies the 24th spot. "Next fire chief" the bottom of the frame reads.
Boone said she plans to have the historic photos moved to another part of the building and a mural to occupy the wall instead. She said the intended message of the art piece will be "we're all in this together."
"There's a lot of history here and we will continue to respect and honor that," Boone said referring to the photos of the chiefs.
"We also want to reflect who we are today and who we want to be going forward."
Boone said her bureau and others still have work to do to better reflect the communities they serve.
Fire bureau records show the agency recruited 686 people between 2000 and 2018, 89% of them men and 81% of them White. Half of the people recruited went on to be hired.
Boone noted that Portland's fire department stopped being a volunteer service and became an official employer in 1883, before women were allowed to vote and before Oregon's exclusion laws to prevent Black people from settling in the state were repealed.
"It started based on discriminatory policies and practices and some of those legacy policies and practices show us that outcome today," Boone said. "If we're moving to a more inclusive, suitable fire service, then we need to undo that harm and better reflect what the bureau is today."
Boone said she wants the Portland fire bureau to market more to children in all languages. When she was growing up in Portland in the 1970s and 80s, she didn't see many firefighters who looked like her, so she never considered it as a possibility. She wonders how many others also overlook firefighting as a possible career for similar reasons.
"I will always champion the men and women of Portland Fire & Rescue because we didn't build this system," she said. "We're trying to live within the system and change it to make it more just, fair and inclusive. My hope is that our actions today and going forward will set the next generation up for success."
Information from: The Oregonian/OregonLive.