Taking the Heat
By Andrea Todd
Posted on October 12, 2006
Photography by BruceBrown.com
Every firefighter can recall one incident—one fire, one emergency response call, one failed rescue—that brought the big pictureinto sharp focus. Too sharp. As in, “That’s it. I can’t do this anymore.” Joe Cherry vividly recalls his, in great detail.
As the battalion chief for Sacramento Fire Department in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Cherry often got calls at all hours informing him of an injured firefighter. Roused from his home, often from a deep sleep, he would get up, get dressed, head over to the hospital in his red-and-white “Batt” mobile to identify the firefighters, notify family members, collect and report information about what happened—in short, stabilize the situation. Usually, those calls are pretty standard issue: Someone’s ears were toasted or a leg had been sprained.
This one was different.
One night in 1989, the phone rang at 3 a.m. to notify Cherry that two firefighters responding to a call had been critically injured. Both—one male and one female—were on their way to UC Davis Medical Center, one via chopper. The two had been loading an injured man into an ambulance on a gurney when a woman, high on drugs and driving her car down that same street, became mesmerized by the flashing red lights. She drove her car head-on into the ambulance.
The person on the gurney died. The male firefighter was thrown over the car; the female firefighter was slammed into it.
Cherry arrived at the hospital and was turning the corner into the emergency room just as the gurney with the male firefighter came around from the opposite direction. Hospital personnel were “bagging” the man (using a bag to pump air into his lungs). The nurse on the gurney above the man’s chest was a woman Cherry knew.
“She caught my eye and shook her head, which said to me it didn’t look good.” He repeats this three times while telling this story.
The firefighter had sustained a head injury so severe that Cherry, who had worked with him for years, couldn’t identify him. He called the firefighter’s captain to find out who he was, so he could notify the family. That captain hadn’t been on duty either—Cherry had to track down the acting captain.
Finally, a positive ID.
Cherry knew from various conversations that the injured firefighter’s brother was a police officer. Cherry contacted him first. When the brother, on duty that night, arrived at the hospital, Cherry waited in the hall to meet him.
“You’d expect him to ask about his brother’s condition,” Cherry recalls. “But he knew from the look on my face. The first thing I said to him was something like, ‘Do you pray?’ or ‘Are you a praying man?’ Not, ‘Are you religious?’ but something about prayer. Then I said, ‘Because we need to go and pray.’ We found an empty room and prayed.”
Cherry also was responsible for calling the female firefighter’s family. Cherry knew not only that her family lived in Long Beach, but that her father was a fire chief there. When he identified himself, the woman’s father asked immediately, “What happened to my daughter?”
When firefighters get a call like that in the dead of night, they know, says Cherry. Relatively new to the fire department at the time was critical incident awareness training, in which firefighters, captains and chiefs are taught how to work through post-traumatic stress they often experience as a reaction to the the situations they face on the job. In a critical-incident debriefing two years after the event, taught by the same nurse whose eye he caught while one of his men was being wheeled into surgery, Cherry relived the incident and realized how profoundly it had affected him.
Both firefighters lived and eventually returned to work. The woman continues to fight fires; the man, who suffered brain trauma, has since retired. “He was never the same,” Cherry admits.
“That was my incident,” he says. “There have been tragic things I’ve seen on the job, and all the stuff with children gets to you. But you get so busy dealing with this stuff again and again for so many years, you diffuse it somehow. You don’t recognize your own vulnerability to it. I like to think I’m over it now, and I can’t really tell you specifically how it affected me, only that now I know it did. It happened 15 years ago, and I can remember it like it happened yesterday.”
Julius “Joe” Cherry was sworn in as fire chief of Sacramento Fire Department on June 7, 2004, the day after his 50th birthday. In the department’s history, he is the second African-American to be appointed chief, the pinnacle of a professional firefighting career that began 28 years ago, and the first to hold a law degree. Of those 28 years, he spent 26 on the line, “pulling hose,” as Cherry puts it. He was promoted to captain in 1983, battalion chief in 1989, assistant chief in 1995 and deputy chief a little less than a year before he was named chief.
He was on the job as chief barely a month in July 2004 when he got the first call that would ultimately set his course. A report was filed that on-duty Sacramento City firefighters had attended the “Porn Star Costume Ball” at the Radisson Hotel. Shortly after, other reports of on-duty shenanigans streamed in: a firefighter requesting a porn star’s autograph, another drinking at Cheaters Sports Bar, yet another giving two women “joy rides”—in his lap, in the fire truck—and finally, reports of four firefighters, including a captain, having consensual “group sex sessions” while on duty at Station 12 downtown. As of March 11 this year, 24 firefighters had been disciplined and terminations were pending for five.
It all sounded like something you’d see on an episode of the FX television drama “Rescue Me”—not something you’d read on the front page of The Sacramento Bee.
Leave it to Joe Cherry, his colleagues say, to find the silver lining in all this.“I see it as an opportunity to lead,” he says confidently. “It’s so easy to lead when things are going smooth. It’s a lot harder when the seas are stormy. We wear badges and are assigned to protect the public trust. What we’re seeing a lot of here is what’s called 9/11 syndrome. The events of Sept. 11 raised the profile of the American firefighter higher than it has ever been raised, to such heights that any fall was going to be far and hard. The American firehouse was thrown into the spotlight. Suddenly, we’re a media event—and it’s not easy to manage when you’re under a media microscope.”
By contrast, the public sees firefighters as heroes, explains Cherry, not as men and women with faults. “The rock star status that was a result of what happened in New York—many of our men didn’t know how to handle that.”
If firefighters are enjoying a certain level of stardom, Cherry is a superstar. His wife of 15 years compares him to a movie star. He’s handsome—even as firefighters go—and the worst things anyone can seem to say about him are that he’s a bit of a clotheshorse and once dipped into a Starbucks tip jar for 10 cents to avoid breaking the $100 bill in his wallet.
Colleagues, friends and family describe him as gregarious, ethical, down-to-earth, intelligent. . . beloved, even. True, some of it comes from those recently promoted within the fire department. But not all of it.
Brian Rice, president of Sacramento Area Firefighters Union Local 522, is quick to point out that he and the new chief are “not buddy-buddy” and often are fighting each other “on opposite sides of the fence.” Nonetheless, he calls Cherry “fun to fight with.”
“Because it’s productive fighting,” he explains. “He has a job to do and I have a job to do. But at the end of the day, it’s not about winning or losing; it’s about service. If either one of us was to ever lose sight of that, we would both need to be replaced.”
Rice, who has known Cherry for 20 years, describes him as “highly respected” throughout the course of his career.
“When it became apparent that there would be a new chief, we pushed hard to get him in,” says Rice. And it was iffy, he points out. “We knew he was close to retirement, had a successful [personal injury] law practice on the side. But because he wanted to give something back to the fire department and to the city, he took the job. And the men—white shirts and blue—were genuinely excited to see him get the job. Because Cherry is the full package. He’s educated, he’s ethical, he’s paid his dues. He’s the one to get Sac Fire back on track. Right now, that’s his job.”
One aspect of Rice’s job is to fight to ensure that the rights of the firefighters involved in both scandals are protected. (Two of the four firefighters involved in the consensual sex scandal have sought legal representation and are pursuing reinstatement.)
And he admits that the actions of the past year have put the new chief “in a crappy spot.”
“There are things he wants to do and can’t get done because he’s busy putting out these brush fires,” says Rice. As a result of the scandals, Rice admits, other problems have taken priority over issues the chief was originally eager to work on: addressing the lack of diversity in Sac Fire, establishing a strong chief officers’ core, and grooming good junior chiefs and officers to take over leadership roles in the future as department veterans retire in increasing numbers.
Keith Glout, former Local 522 president, now vice president and a Sacramento firefighter, says the scandals have put Cherry’s “master plan”—a blueprint of how Sacramento Fire will deal with the city’s anticipated growth—on simmer at the back of the stove. “Natomas, for example, has a population that’s getting close to Folsom’s. Folsom has several fire stations, four or five of them. Natomas has one.” (Two stations outside the city currently serve Natomas as well as their own areas.) Glout says that Sacramento’s growth has put a strain on Sac Fire, because Sacramento is no longer a big town but a big city. “We have to deal with the increased traffic, which adds time. We have increased emergency calls,” Glout says.
Cherry explains that Sac Fire doesn’t just put out fires. “Think about any emergency situation you see—a car accident, a medical emergency, a gas leak. You always see cops, an ambulance and the fire department. We deal with most emergency situations—not just fires,” says the chief, who has been pushing for funding to get one additional firefighter available to arrive at every emergency call.
This is a challenge, Glout admits, because it’s expensive, and part of Cherry’s job is to be fiscally responsive to the budget restraints as well as the needs of the city.
Bob Thomas, Sacramento’s city manager, hired Cherry because Sac Fire needed a chief who could see the situation from all sides, could take all arguments into account, could compromise to craft a solution that would work for everyone and thus take the fire department into the next century.
“Fires have actually decreased,” says Cherry’s boss, “and the fire department isn’t really a fire department anymore but an emergency response department—an ‘all-risk organization’ . . . a multihazard response unit, dealing with everything from search and rescue to weapons of mass destruction. Two or three people were up for the job, and Chief Cherry not only had the background for this job, he has the confidence of the mayor, the union and the workplace.”
Thomas adds that, just a year into the job, “Cherry has proven he’s the right man for it. He has established a culture where firefighters are willing to report misconduct within their own ranks—that’s a sign he’s changed the culture. I think this is a good thing.”
The scandals have brought to the forefront the need to make some significant policy changes that, a roomful of Cherry’s battalion chiefs agree, the whole nation will be watching for and reviewing as a result of the publicity. Cherry is working with the police chief to establish an internal affairs division, something new to the fire department, which will include within its agenda a Professional Standards in Conduct program.
Before, the thinking was that what you do off duty, such as drinking and even domestic violence, was personal family business the department didn’t get involved in. “That’s not the case anymore,” says Forrest Adams, assistant fire chief. “Now, we have mandatory sexual harassment training, diversity awareness called inclusion training. Any reported domestic violence, alcoholism treatment, critical incident stress management—these are all job-related issues related to firefighting that we’re addressing with this new department, employee assistance programs and new codes of conduct.”
Cherry, says Adams, is seen as the right leader for the right time; the kind of man who can establish these codes, because “he’s articulate, he’s empathetic. Also because of his legal training, he sees both sides to every situation,” Adams says.
This puts him at odds with others in the department who aren’t used to this approach—who are more old school.
“He got a lot of heat for the way he handled the scandals,” admits Bob Lutrelle, supervising investigator for the fire department, who says he’s known Cherry for years, “because he didn’t immediately fire the men involved; he insisted on reviewing the facts. And then he did fire some of the men involved. Some thought he was being too harsh; some thought he wasn’t being hard enough. Some thought he was being inconsistent, when he took into account the differences in the situations, the rules and the regulations, and what was at stake.”
And there is a great deal at stake, Rice explains. Job security, pensions, benefits. “But there’s more. There’s the love of the job itself: the identity that comes with being a firefighter, of serving that sacred role in the community. There’s the camaraderie, the bond with those you work with. “Firefighters are weird,” continues Rice. “A guy gets hurt on this job and I have yet to run into one that wants to be on disability or workers’ comp. First thing the experts, the doctors and the psychologists hear from firefighters who have been injured on the job is, ‘When can I go back to work?’”
Cherry echoes this sentiment almost word for word. He gets why those involved in the scandal want to keep their jobs, despite the fact that, as Rice points out, they’ll be under tremendous scrutiny should they return.
“There’s something about this job,” Cherry says. “I don’t know if it’s adrenaline-related, don’t know if I can name it exactly, but there’s something about jumping on a rig and rolling up to an unknown situation and knowing your life depends on [you and] your co-worker doing his or her job. The job becomes profoundly affecting. You’re serving people who need help. That’s part of it. You look in the rig and you have to believe you can depend on every person sitting in it. Think about it: How many men can say that about their co-workers?”
Cherry adds that, even as far as fire departments nationwide are concerned, “This is a good fire department. I have met chiefs of departments all over the country. And this is a good fire department. People come here from all over the country to work Sac Fire; people come back after paying their dues somewhere else. In the course of this whole scandal, notice that no one has ever said we aren’t a good fire department, that we can’t handle an emergency, that we can’t do our jobs well. What they have said is we behaved badly. And we did. My job, for the good men and women in the department—and most of them are—is to restore the reputation of the fire department.
“We are trustees of Sac Fire. Sac Fire doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to the community,” adds Cherry, who, it was reported by The Sacramento Bee, “welled up” when addressing the second round of accusations of impropriety leveled at the department.
Cherry admits he was overwhelmed at that point—that it was an emotional reaction.
He’s not the only one who got emotional about the scandals. His men did. “My heart ached for him when these things [the scandals of 2004] happened,” says Glout. “What should have been the best time of his life—getting the top job—was followed by this extreme low point. There are men on the department who are very angry about that.”
"I think the scandals have made him stronger,” says the chief’s wife, Donna Cherry, school principal at John Reith Elementary School in Sacramento. The two met as students at American River College when they were in their early 20s; they socialized within the same group of mutual friends. It turned out the two continued to admire each other from afar, crossing paths occasionally until both had divorced.
Then one crafty phone call was finally placed. “My boss where I was working at the time had a question about the fire business,” says Donna. “I had watched Joe climb in rank through the department over the years, and I told my supervisor, ‘I know someone who can answer that question.’”
She placed a call to the then-assistant chief. “I was told he’d be off for four days,” she recalls. “I remember thinking, who’s off for four days?” It was her first glimpse into the firefighter’s work environment: days off followed by grueling 24-hour shifts, when nothing can happen for hours or the calls can come in nonstop.
On the fourth day, he called her back first thing.
“I said to him, ‘My name is Donna Bagely, and I’m not sure you’ll remember me,’” and she got a dose of one thing others say makes Joe Cherry so charming: “He said right away, ‘Of course, I remember you.’ Years later, he knew exactly who I was.”
He answered her question—then the two reminisced a bit and talked about getting the old gang together again.
“And he said, ‘You know, that would be nice and all, but I would really like to go out with you.’ We set up a date on the phone.”
The future Mrs. Cherry had the future chief over for dinner, whipping up a dinner of chicken, macaroni and cheese, collard greens and “my famous pecan pie,” she says.
Nowadays, the two parent a blended family: Cherry’s three daughters from his previous marriage and Donna’s 17-year-old son, a senior at Kennedy High School.
She admits, even 15 years later, her husband exudes the same magnetic charm that attracted her to begin with. “There are some people who just stand out. My husband is very handsome, very smart and easy to be with,” she says, “but there’s something else about him that you sense right away. He is strong. He has strong values. When you’re with him, you don’t need to worry about anything.”
Watching his growth from afar, she says, a person can’t help but be impressed. She’s seen it up close as her husband has rocketed to the top position. “It’s like with movie stars. It appears as if they’ve moved up very fast, that suddenly, thanks to one big role, they’re in the spotlight and winning awards, when the truth is they’ve often been working very hard at it for years. In truth, with bit parts and bad roles, all their lives have been spent preparing for that one great role. That’s how it’s been for Julius. All his life has been spent preparing for this job.”
Cherry says a fascination with the law lured him back to school for his law degree in 1998. His wife disagrees: She says she believes he went to law school with the intention of being a great fire chief.
he oldest of six children, Joe Cherry moved to California in the early ’70s as an enlisted officer in the Air Force, stationed at Mather Air Force Base. While still in the Air Force, he volunteered as a firefighter for what is now the city of Rancho Cordova and, after his discharge, went to work as a firefighter for the city of Fairfield.
“Like with many firefighters, it’s in his family,” says Donna Cherry, referring to an uncle who was a firefighter in his hometown of Gary, Ind. Firefighting is referred to as “paramilitary service” because the lifestyle, with its structure, makes it similar to military service—making the transfer out of a military career very easy, explains Assistant Chief Adams, who has been a reservist in the Coast Guard one year longer than he’s been a firefighter. And that may be one reason Cherry, like other military men discharged shortly after Vietnam ended, took a job as a firefighter.
“But Cherry will tell you that he originally joined the fire department as a way of paying for his education, through the GI Bill. It was his thinking that he’d get his degree and then go out and get a real job,” Adams says. “But he never left.”
When Cherry joined the Sacramento Fire Department in 1976, he did so during a contentious period that followed a bitter strike and while hiring practices operated under an assertive and extremely unpopular affirmative action program: The program required houses to hire one minority and one female for every two white males hired.
“A lot of people got jobs because of this program, and a lot of people didn’t,” says Leo Baustian, assistant fire chief and the go-to guy on fire department personnel issues. “I got a job because I’m a quarter Native American; and I know one guy’s brother I worked with, a white guy, who didn’t.”
Cherry attended night school for 13 years, with shift trades and swaps, earning his bachelor’s degree in business administration from California State University, Sacramento, and his law degree from University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law in 1989.
“The main benefit of the legal education was mastering those analytical skills,” Cherry explains. “Whether it’s a restaurant or a fire department you’re running, when you’re running a 600-employee business, those analytical skills are beneficial.”
But he admits that law school was tough on the family. “Firefighting is hard on family life as it is,” he says, citing the unusual hours. (In his own 28-year career, he spent only two years working on a typical weekday 8-to-5 schedule.) He adds, “The firefighting parent works Christmas and birthdays, for 24-hour periods. And it’s a dangerous job. Kids know in the back of their minds that when Mom or Dad goes to work, he or she might not come back.” Accomplishing educational goals while working full time with Sac Fire wouldn’t have been easy for anyone. While Cherry prefers not to detail the racism he dealt with on the job, especially in those early years, Adams insists, “He dealt with it.” Adams says this because he, who is white, saw it for himself.
“Men would tell the jokes openly,” he says, “make racist comments and demeaning remarks about the department’s affirmative action policies.”
One would think that there were those who leveled these attitudes at Cherry, certainly behind the scenes and especially as he worked his way through the ranks and several promotions. District 4 City Councilmember Rob Fong insists that, in this particular case, that shoe never dropped. “One would expect it to, especially among the have-nots and didn’t-gets,” says Fong. “But that is not the case. People love and respect this chief. They really do wish him well. They see that he set goals and doggedly pursued them. That speaks volumes.”
Fong met Cherry while Fong was running for re-election on the Sacramento City Unified School Board, shortly after the then-battalion chief had graduated from law school and had his own personal injury practice up and running. “I invited him to the now-defunct Sacramento Club. He probably assumed I wanted a campaign contribution. But I really just wanted to know his story.” Fong later invited Cherry to join his law firm, Ryan & Fong.
Currently “of counsel”—providing counsel to colleagues but not clients—Cherry will join the firm full time once he retires from the fire department.
“Whenever that is,” jokes Fong.
Most of those who work for Cherry at Sac Fire admit they’re lucky to have him. Not only could he conceivably leave anytime to start his own lucrative law practice, his name has come up for other firefighting positions—chief of the San Francisco and Oakland fire departments, to name two.
“When Julius didn’t get the San Francisco job, he was very disappointed,” says Cherry’s pastor, Curtis Mitchell, of the Antioch Progressive Church in Sacramento. “I told him, ‘This happened for a reason.’ And now we know why. He got the job here. This is his community. This is his home. He would rather be chief here.”
And many believe that his current position is the pinnacle of but one career, that he also has tremendous potential to begin a brilliant political career.
A battalion chief recently promoted by Cherry eagerly repeats a rumor he heard “from someone, somewhere” that if Robbie Waters doesn’t run for re-election to the Sacramento City Council, Joe Cherry just might throw his hat in for that spot.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he did something along those lines,” says Glout. “He loves this city. As a fire chief, he directs about 550 individuals who serve the city. A job that allows him to help 5,500 individuals better service the city has got to appeal to him,” he says, adding, “but we hope we can keep him here a bit longer.”
“Many men who have no reason not to retire are staying on because this man was made chief,” says Battalion Chief James Glass. Forrest Adams, one of them, agrees.
Mitchell, his pastor, says that Cherry has confided in him regarding his goals: “I know that he has other ambitions and aspirations he would like to achieve.”
Can he be a little more specific about what those might be?
“I cannot and will not,” he replies.
In the face of it all, amid rumor and speculation, Cherry’s boss is confident his man isn’t headed out the door. “He’s fully committed to being the fire chief,” Thomas insists.
And Cherry himself dismisses any speculation that he has any plans to turn in his turnouts anytime soon.
Still, he admits, it’s nice to hear.
“Of course I’m flattered. And very appreciative. But right now I’m focused on being the best fire chief I can be.”
After all, he says, he still has a lot of work to do. One primary goal: “We’re working on diversity,” he says, explaining how, about 10 years ago, Sac Fire teamed up with the ambulance business—and as a result needed to hire high-quality paramedics, from which the hiring pool was predominantly white males. “That’s just the way it worked out. We needed to hire a lot of good paramedics very quickly and diversity suffered as a result,” Cherry explains. “Now we need to catch up.”
Cherry believes it is as important for the fire department to look like the community it serves as it is for the police department. “No question about it,” he says. “Firefighters go into people’s homes, serve them during what is often the most tragic state in their lives. We need to mirror the community we serve.”
For now, fixing Sac Fire’s reputation remains front and center. Fixing Sac Fire comes later. Cherry is determined to try, and hopes he’ll be around long enough to do both. But when asked if he is worried about losing his job as a residual effect of these scandals, he makes it clear: No, he is not.
“I don’t want to lose my job. That would be embarassing. But what’s going to happen if I do? What’s going to happen if they fire me? I’m going to go practice law full time and make more money? That’s not why I’m here. I’m doing this job because I want to, not because I have to. I care about this organization. No one cares more about it than me. If the powers that be decide that’s not enough, so be it. That’s their job, to make those decisions. I’m concentrating right now on doing this job, my job,” he says.
And the hardest part of that job? “Having to tell people they’ve got to get on board. That this is the way it’s going to be.” Whether the issue is diversity or zero tolerance or an internal affairs procedure, says Cherry, things are headed in a certain direction.
“You have to be something of a salesperson in this job; you can’t be a dictator. It’s like with an aircraft carrier; it doesn’t turn on a dime. Now, I will work with people who are used to doing things a certain way, have been doing things those certain ways for a very long time. But eventually they need to come on board. Like it or not. Great leaders truly care about people—you can’t fake that—and it’s hard to take a hard line with people you care about. But that’s how leaders [lead]. People follow. Not all follow because they want that to be the scenario. But they do follow, or you’re not a leader.”
Then Joe Cherry says something that seems to reveal the mentor, the teacher, the life coach —indeed, the people person, the people pleaser. What really makes his new job so hard?
He says: “It’s difficult. You want everyone to be happy, but not everyone will be.”