Bringing diversity to LAFD force

Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times
All Rights Reserved 
A Los Angeles police and fire department recruitment event aims to interest more minorities and women in joining their ranks.
Los Angeles Times (California)

Alphonso Russ, 24, is so gung-ho about becoming a Los Angeles firefighter that he showed up Sunday at the police and fire departments' Black History Month Recruitment Exposition and Family Carnival to take yet another recruitment exam, just for practice.

Not only that, but it was the Police Department's test he took — not the Fire Department's — "just to see the variances," he said.

After the test at the Rancho Cienega Sports Center near Baldwin Village, LAPD recruiters were chatting with Russ anyway about opportunities in their department.

Fifty years ago, Russ would have had a different experience if seeking a firefighting career in Los Angeles.

Before 1955, African American firefighters in L.A. served in segregated firehouses, an experience shared by black firefighters in cities across the country for much of the early 20th century. The Los Angeles Stentorians, an organization of black firefighters, was formed in that era to address discrimination.

"With that great history, how can you not be a part of it?" said Russ, a native of South Los Angeles whose parents migrated here from Mississippi.

Rides, booths and police vehicles were spread across a playing field where curious families posed for pictures with a bomb squad robot.

The weekend expo was meant to draw African Americans interested in careers in public safety and law enforcement.

It comes at a time when such agencies are actively seeking to diversify their ranks in terms of race and gender, recruiters said.

"In every nationality, in every race, our upbringing plays a big part in relating to our community and the comfort in speaking to an officer that represents the community," said Officer Michele Howell, who lives in the South L.A. area and attended school there.

On Tuesday, the city's Personnel Department is expected to report to the Fire Commission that 11.8% of the Fire Department workforce is African American.

Its rate of black personnel is higher than the state's other big cities when compared with available black workers, the report states.

Russ said he was encouraged by the presence of such groups as the Stentorians, which had a booth at the expo.

The recruit is a recent graduate in fire prevention administration at Cal State L.A. and is working his way through the long, rigorous process of becoming a city firefighter.

With written exams, interviews and an arduous set of physical tests, the process isn't easy, Russ said.

"I think, like in life, it presents its obstacles," he said. "That's what my focus is, to keep pressing on." 

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