After 23 years of service, Gil Dong was appointed chief of Berkeley Fire Department at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, also becoming the first Asian-American fire chief in the continental United States.
Dong has served as interim fire chief since last December, after the retirement of previous chief, Debra Pryor. Since joining as a paramedic in 1990, Dong has worked in every division of the fire department.
“The work doesn’t change, but the title does,” Dong said.
Acting Deputy Fire Chief Avery Webb said Dong has been an efficient administrator since the day he stepped in as interim, immediately taking action with a strategic plan to address the strengths and weaknesses of the department.
“We’ve done some strategic planning in the past, but one thing that’s different this time is that there’s much more of a concerted effort to implement it,” Webb said. “There are timelines and deadlines, and that makes more realistic the changes that might happen, whereas before, the strategic plan became neglected.”
As interim fire chief, Dong also finalized a two-year budget, which focuses on reducing property dollar loss through an improved emergency response program and effective staff training.
Dong has also emphasized open communication with other emergency responders, city departments and the Berkeley Fire Fighters Association, fostering a healthy relationship with the firefighters union.
“He’s always had an open door policy with me,” said Jim Geissinger, president of the Berkeley Fire Fighters Association. “We can call each other at any time. I think this relationship is pretty unique throughout the U.S. It’s fairly rare for the union to have this kind of relationship.”
Though Dong said he felt honored to be the first Asian-American fire chief in the continental U.S. but torn that it took such a long time.
“I think it’s reflective of the culture and the problem we have recruiting Asian-American firefighters,” Dong said. “Asian parents want you to become doctors, lawyers, engineers. We need to break through some of those barriers and show that being a firefighter is just as honorable.”
According to Dong, there needs to be more aggressive recruiting of minorities and Asian Americans into the fire service. Diversity outreach is also a priority on the strategic plan to demonstrate that fire service is a viable career for minorities as well.
Norm Caba, president of the Asian Firefighters Association and a lieutenant with the San Francisco Fire Department, said he has also personally struggled with Asian American recruitment. However, he said he definitely sees change in the near future, especially with Dong’s high appointment to fire chief.
“With Asians moving higher up in the ranks, they can see Chief Dong as a strong example and be inspired by that,” Caba said.
Dong said the challenge to reach the top of the ladder was worthwhile, and he is willing to teach anyone the ropes.
“We’re all public servants, and there’s nothing more honorable than doing this work,” Dong said. “Part of what I need to do for my community is to be that role model and show that breaking barriers is possible.”
Dong will assume his position as fire chief on July 7.
Contact J. Hannah Lee at [email protected]