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Los Angeles struggles to expand number of female firefighters

The sluggish rate of progress threatens Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas' push to double the number of women firefighters by 2020

By David Zahniser and Ben Welsh
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Four years ago, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti vowed to revamp the way the city hires firefighters by introducing more women into a department that has been overwhelmingly male.

Yet despite increasingly aggressive recruitment efforts, the Fire Department has seen only modest gains. Last month, 3.1% of its firefighters were women, according to employment data prepared by the Fire Department. That figure was 2.9% in July 2013, the month Garcetti took office.

Last month, 3.1% of its firefighters were women, according to employment data prepared by the Fire Department. (Photo/LAFD)
Last month, 3.1% of its firefighters were women, according to employment data prepared by the Fire Department. (Photo/LAFD)

The sluggish rate of progress threatens Fire Chief Ralph M. Terrazas' push to double the number of women firefighters by 2020. Once civilian employees are added to the tally, the department actually has seen a slight decrease in the overall percentage of women since Garcetti became mayor.

Deputy Mayor Jeff Gorell, who oversees public safety for Garcetti, said the mayor is still pushing to make sure 5% of the department's firefighters are women by 2020. The increase so far, he argued, is not "insignificant."

"We're happy to see the increase," he said. "We're happy to see the movement in the direction that we want to go, which is to get to 5%."

Garcetti halted hiring at the Fire Department in March 2014 after a series of Times reports exposed nepotism and mismanagement in hiring. At the time, the mayor condemned the city's selection methods as "fatally flawed" — and promised to ensure that its workforce "better reflects the city."

The Fire Department's push to recruit and retain women is a focus not just of the mayor but also his wife, Amy Wakeland. Last month, Gorell and Terrazas went to Getty House, the official mayor's residence, to brief Wakeland on the campaign to hire more women.

On Thursday, Garcetti and Wakeland will co-host a recruitment fair at Getty House for women interested in jobs at the fire and police departments.

Fire Department officials say they have launched publicity campaigns, created promotional videos and gone to colleges and universities in hopes of boosting the number of female applicants. Of the 826 invited to firefighter training since 2013, 61 — or 7.4% of the total — were women.

Fire officials also say they are encouraged that the newest class of recruits has nine women and 56 men. Those trainees, who arrived last week, could boost the city's share of female firefighters to 3.3%.

Still, for that number to hold, every female recruit must successfully complete the rigorous five-month boot camp, where potential hires must pass drills while handling heavy ladders, hoses and tools. That's been a major challenge in recent years.

Since Garcetti restarted hiring, two classes finished with no women graduating. Last summer, the department examined six consecutive academy classes from 2014 to 2016 and found that only 57% of female recruits graduated. By comparison, 83% of male recruits finished their training successfully.

Some women left the training academy after sustaining injuries, said Fire Commission President Delia Ibarra, a Garcetti appointee. Others have left for personal reasons or because they failed to perform, she said.

"We need to figure out … is there anything we can do with policies and practices that can improve our retention rate without sacrificing any of the quality," Ibarra said.

Department officials are looking for strategies to help women perform better overall in the training academy. Yet some of that research has been challenged in recent weeks by the city's firefighter union, department records show.

On Feb. 1, Independent Assessor Sue Stengel — an in-house Fire Department watchdog — sent the fire chief a written request for documents on testing and evaluations at the fire academy. Stengel made the request, Ibarra said, to understand why women and other groups of recruits are graduating at lower rates.

Stengel asked for journal entries and grading sheets produced during recruit testing. Half an hour later, Ibarra sent an email telling Stengel she needed to first obtain permission from of United Firefighters of Los Angeles City Local 112.

Ibarra also instructed Stengel to obtain legal advice from the city's lawyers on her information request, according to the email, a copy of which was obtained by The Times.

On Feb. 27, the firefighter union sent its own letter, saying the independent assessor lacked the legal authority to obtain personnel records at the academy without the union's consent. "For these reasons, [the union] demands that Ms. Stengel cease and desist from her unauthorized conduct," union president Tony Gamboa wrote.

Neither Gamboa nor Stengel would speak with The Times. Ibarra, for her part, said she believes the assessor can conduct an audit without reviewing employee records. The Fire Department, she said, has been the subject of multiple lawsuits over the role of the independent assessor.

"I don't want to get sued again and I don't want the city to get sued again," Ibarra said.

Legal costs have been a huge issue for the department, with the city spending millions to address complaints that firefighters were subjected to gender bias, racial discrimination and other forms of mistreatment.

In one incident, a black firefighter ate dog food fed to him by his colleagues — a firehouse prank that resulted in at least $4 million in legal payouts.

In the wake of those payments, voters created the position of independent assessor in 2009 to look into the department's handling of employee misconduct. Not long after that vote, then-City Atty. Carmen Trutanich barred the department's first independent assessor from gaining access to the agency's personnel records.

The dispute between Trutanich and then-Independent Assessor Stephen E. Miller produced even more lawsuits. Three of the city's lawyers sued Miller, alleging he engaged in racial and gender discrimination as he fought to see those records. Miller filed his own lawsuit, saying he had been subjected to retaliation by those lawyers.

Garcetti's appointees on the Fire Commission fired Miller in 2013.

Even with its ramped-up recruitment efforts, the department has struggled to ensure that new arrivals outpace the number of women resigning or retiring. The city has added 14 female firefighters since July 2013, bringing the total number to 106, according to city records. But during the same period, the department added nearly 150 male firefighters.

The result is a male-female ratio that's nearly the same as it was in 1995.

The department's struggle to recruit and retain women does not come as a surprise to retired firefighter d'Lisa Davies, who left in 2015 after 31 years with the department. Davies, who is African American, said a big reason for the lack of progress is that female and minority firefighters frequently experience bullying and other forms of mistreatment on the job.

Davies said that since she retired, at least three female firefighters have told her about harassment they faced from colleagues.

"The consequences for harassment — they're minimal," she said. "The person that complains is usually transferred. They're transferred to a station where no one wants them … and then the harassment continues."

In the decade leading up to her retirement, Davies filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, saying she experienced racial and gender discrimination during her time at the department. The city ultimately paid Davies $325,000 and agreed to have the federal government monitor the department's anti-discrimination training programs.

Last month, the fire chief issued a written warning to department employees about workplace behavior, telling firefighters they need to treat one another with respect. In his letter, Terrazas reminded department employees that they must use the title firefighter, not fireman.

Copyright 2018 Los Angeles Times

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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