OAKLAND — Living at his family’s home after college graduation and coming to accept that an NBA career was out of the question, Damon Covington was restless about how his life would proceed — until a voice in his head told him he should be a firefighter.
He knew next to nothing about how to become one, and even less about the Oakland Fire Department, where he started out two decades ago. Now Covington is the city’s new full-time chief, after four months of holding the interim role.
“Oakland really raised me, helped me cut my teeth, realize what it means to give back to my city,” Covington said Monday at his swearing-in ceremony, on a sunny morning near the city’s ferry terminal.
His hiring will fill one of the biggest gaps in institutional leadership in Oakland, where the police department has been without a full-time chief for nine months. Covington’s salary hasn’t been announced, but his immediate predecessor, Reginald Freeman, made nearly $284,000 last year in base salary and $374,000 with benefits, according to Transparent California.
Freeman retired as fire chief this summer after nearly two years on the job. During his somewhat short tenure, he worked to bring Oakland Fire into compliance with various state policies around inspection standards and firefighting certifications — areas where the department had fallen behind.
After running through words of appreciation for the city’s leaders, Covington was clear on his top priority: establishing better mental-health services for the department’s 443 firefighters.
Oakland Fire Department fire chief Damon Covington speaks to the audience after being sworn in by Oakland mayor Sheng Thao during a swearing-in ceremony in Oakland, Calif., on Monday, Nov. 13, 2023. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)
First responders, he said, “didn’t have a pandemic off — we came to work every day as if everything was normal.” He said he wants his crews to have the resources to deal with the wear-and-tear of the job and be able to recharge.
The new chief was flanked at the ceremony by Mayor Sheng Thao, who hired him along with the city administrator. She said Covington was peerless in his ability to “lead with his heart, his compassion… here in Oakland you have to lead with your values.”
A career Oakland firefighter, Covington will head an understaffed department: Only 443 of the 506 budgeted full-time positions are currently filled.
“We’re excited about one of our own rising up through the ranks to take the job at Oak Fire,” said Zac Unger, the head of the city’s firefighters union and a candidate for the city council, said in an interview. “We always think it’s a good day when somebody with a lot of Oakland history is promoted.”
Newly appointed Oakland Fire Department fire chief Damon Covington speaks to the audience after a swearing-in ceremony in Oakland, Calif., on Monday, Nov. 13, 2023. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)