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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

First woman to lead Spokane Fire Department during search for permanent chief

Editor’s note: Check back soon for a full profile on Julie O’Berg, the Spokane Fire Department’s interim fire chief and first woman to lead the department.

Deputy Fire Chief Julie O’Berg will be elevated as the first woman to ever lead the Spokane Fire Department while the city undergoes a national search for a permanent replacement to outgoing Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer, Mayor Lisa Brown’s administration announced Friday.

“I look forward to working with both department and city leadership to provide stability and ensure that the department is positioned to excel at our mission,” O’Berg wrote in a prepared statement.

O’Berg has served as the department’s deputy chief of operations since 2020, following 28 years with the Overland Park Fire Department in the Kansas City metropolitan area as a firefighter and paramedic, and in various leadership roles.

In a Friday interview, Brown said O’Berg had planned to soon retire but was persuaded to stay on with the department during the hiring process for her successor. She will not seek the job permanently, according to a news release.

“We had a great conversation, and she was convinced and willing to stick around through the hiring of the new chief,” Brown said. “I think that’s going to be a real positive.”

Brown’s staff announced on Jan. 3 that the city would seek a new leader for the fire department. The following day, a city news release said Schaeffer and the administration had “mutually agreed” that he would retire effective Jan. 15. Schaeffer will “assist with the transition” and remain in the department through the end of March while Assistant Fire Chief Tom Williams manages day-to-day operations, according to the Jan. 4 media release.

Brown said Friday that she and Schaeffer talked after she won the November election about him leaving the department and agreed to discuss timing and the transition process once she took office, but that conversation hadn’t happened before the initial announcement on Jan. 3.

“He wasn’t accessible to me at that point in time,” Brown said. “I’ll just put it that way.”

Because of those difficulties with communicating with Schaeffer in the early days of her administration, Brown felt it was necessary to announce Schaeffer’s departure before they “had even actually had that communication.”

In a brief interview, Schaeffer said any communication difficulties were due to the holidays and chaos typical in any transition.

“Any challenge with communication, from my view, was related more to the transition team not having access to the bureaucratic system,” he said. “Part of the conflict we’ve seen over several administrations is it’s tough to bring in a new group of executives without them having the benefit of being plugged into the system.”

Schaeffer acknowledged that he had not expected the Jan. 3 announcement of his pending transition.

“I’m not upset with that,” he added. “I understand. We have to adapt to a chaotic environment and stay focused on the mission.”

But the outgoing fire chief gave O’Berg high praise.

“She is an exceptional human being, we have a good working relationship and we’re going to continue the transition process,” Schaeffer said.

Brown noted she had pushed for a quicker transition in leadership than Schaeffer planned. Schaeffer said he planned to retire no later than June and the department and past administration had been aware .

“When we accelerated, or when we decided on the end of March, that met the needs of the organizations, first, and my needs as well,” he said.

Brown said she and Schaeffer had discussed plans for making improvements on “a set of issues that needed to be addressed” in the department, including “unfair labor practices” and a desire to see the fire department more actively involved in homeless outreach.

“It’s not all problems; some of them are opportunities. But I think it’s good to have leadership that’s ready to take on some changes,” she added.

In an interview following the initial announcement of Schaeffer’s departure, Spokane Firefighters Union President Randy Marler said he expected leadership changes were coming.

O’Berg inherits a department facing some challenges.

“Brian’s been chief for nearly eight years, and while his predecessor was around for a long time, four years is normally the healthy lifespan of a chief,” Marler said at the time. “We’re excited about a change in new leadership.”

Marler said there have been frequent “grievances and unfair labor practices” concerns, which stemmed from department and city leadership, not just Schaeffer.

“But Brian’s the chief, he oversees all of that,” Marler said. “It’s been a struggle the last couple of years. We hope to find somebody who doesn’t find the union to be something required to interact with out of reluctance.”

Marler said several of those grievances were still being reviewed and declined to speak to specifics, but alluded to disputes over current contract negotiations.

Schaeffer said he was unable to comment on pending litigation, but said it was not uncommon for an unfair labor practice complaint to be filed with the state’s Public Employers Relation Commission when there are disputed interpretations of contracts negotiated between the union and the city administration, in some cases with the desire to secure more desirable terms. While he wasn’t sure to which complaints Brown was alluding, he said such complaints mostly had nothing to do with the chief, but that he was sometimes “put in the middle” of those disputes.

The Spokane Firefighters Union has a handful of pending labor practice complaints before the state’s Public Employment Relations Commission filed last October and November, including disputes over deferred compensation plans, the department’s voluntary retirement program and whether the dispatch audio recording policy was changed without proper negotiations with the union.

Brown said she had spoken with union representatives about their concerns with Schaeffer’s leadership, but added that it was not unusual for there to be conflict between unions and leadership.

“I think with the former fire chief, Bobby Williams, there was a notoriously tense relationship with the union in those days, so nothing unusual there. It’s a little built in.”

The Spokane Firefighters Union Political Action Committee contributed $1,200 to Brown’s mayoral campaign and an additional $85,000 to the Citizens for Liberty and Labor PAC, which independently bought ads to benefit the campaigns of Brown and other liberal candidates for local office. The International Association of Fire Fighters and the Washington State Council of Firefighters each contributed an additional $7,500 to the Citizens for Liberty and Labor PAC.