By Robert J. Lopez and Ben Welsh
7:13 PM PST, February 26, 2014
For thousands of people seeking coveted spots at the Los Angeles Fire Department last year, it all came down to April 22.
They had passed a written exam and a grueling physical agility test and now had to turn in their paperwork, which officials would use to help determine who got jobs. The applicants were told certificates showing they'd passed the physical fitness test "would be processed in the order it was received" beginning at 8 a.m. that day.
The onslaught of records came via email and fax, but also from those who had lined up at the city's downtown personnel office to get their forms stamped.
But what the applicants didn't know beforehand was how crucial speed would become in determining if they had a chance at one of 70 open slots. An overwhelming majority would be quietly eliminated from consideration not because they weren't qualified, but because their physical fitness test record wasn't deemed to have arrived within the first 60 seconds. City officials say they later decided they would take what they got in that first minute and set the rest aside to avoid having to evaluate thousands of submissions.
The screening process has been sharply criticized by Mayor Eric Garcetti for being poorly designed and lacking transparency. Applicants on social media have expressed confusion about the process. Among other things, critics say the system undermined the city's ability to ensure the best qualified candidates would make it to through the selection process.
Questions about hiring practices follow other political and management challenges at the department, including its efforts to improve medical response times and the performance of its 911 dispatch center, as well as reduce employee discrimination and bias lawsuits that have cost taxpayers $20 million since 2005.
City officials say they will reexamine procedures for LAFD hiring, which could pick up in coming years with a recovering economy.
But Personnel Department managers defend the screening process, saying the 1-minute cutoff was a fair way to winnow down the field of candidates who would advance to in-person interviews to a more manageable number of just under 1,000. And the procedure was in line with past LAFD hiring practices, they noted. "The first-come, first-serve method that was used ensured an impartial acceptance process," said Gloria Sosa, an assistant general manager at the city agency, which worked with fire officials to oversee the process.
The city began its effort to form a new training class last March with the written civil service exam.
More than 6,500 applicants who passed were told they could submit a physical agility certification starting April 22 at 8 a.m.
A surge of filings that morning caught officials off guard, Sosa said. "We didn't think that we would have that many."
Nearly 3,000 test certificates were submitted by the end of the first day and more have continued to arrive since. Officials say they've stopped counting and have no idea how many candidates filed the paperwork.
Applicants weren't advised beforehand that a first-come numerical limit would be applied. But officials knew that fewer than 1,000 people would be interviewed, said Tina Rodriguez, a manager who helped run the process. To reach that goal, city officials chose to limit interviews to the 965 applicants whose test certificates arrived in the first 60 seconds.
Comments from applicants about problems with filing their certificates by email, and allegations that candidates with paramedic and firefighting experience were never interviewed, began appearing on the LAFD's Facebook recruiting page last spring.
"Something doesn't add up," wrote one applicant who said he had a paramedic license.
Alaina LaVella, 26, who attended UC Irvine and said she holds firefighter and emergency medical technician certifications, was among those who passed the March written exam.
She said she had no idea how critical it was to submit the test form that April morning. She'd recently given birth to a son and was still recovering and preparing for the physical exam. She said she submitted the form 10 days later, the day she passed the test.
"It is really disheartening," LaVella said. "They are missing out on people who are really qualified."
More than 250 women passed the March written exam, according to records obtained by The Times under the California Public Records Act. Just 21 of those beat the one-minute filing mark in April and were interviewed. In the end, only one was hired for the class of recruits now training at the LAFD's drill tower in Panorama City.
The makeup of the class, which is 60% white, has intensified calls by city leaders for reforms in a city that has a majority of Latino, African American and Asian American residents.
Garcetti has said he wants the force to be more reflective of the city it serves. About half of all uniformed employees are white, for example, while the city is 29% white. The percentage of women firefighters remains at just under 3% — the same as in 1995.
"I want to make sure we're educating all communities, all people and everybody to be able to get there and, in a fair way, be able to apply to be a firefighter," Garcetti said.
UC Irvine School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, who has studied City Hall and advised elected officials on various government reform issues, said the one-minute limit probably didn't violate applicants' constitutional legal protections. "But it is troubling to do this without notice," he said. "And it seems completely arbitrary."
Oakland's Fire Department scrapped a first-come screening system similar to Los Angeles' several years ago. "It became a fiasco," said Battalion Chief Robert Lipp. Now, candidates advance based on test scores. "You don't have to look at someone in the face and say, 'I'm sorry. You got there one minute later than you needed to,'" Lipp said.
Other agencies, including the Los Angeles County Fire Department, said they have used combinations of test score rankings and lotteries to advance candidates through the hiring process.
Funds have been approved for another training class later this year. Sosa said members of that class are likely to be drawn from the pool of candidates already granted interviews. It's possible, officials said, that some candidates whose test certificates were received after the first minute last April could be invited to interview for future classes. But it's not clear how many might be selected and how they would be chosen, officials said.
Hiring future recruits will require additional funding from the City Council, which in the coming months will review budget requests from the Fire Department. Current proposals being debated by the city Fire Commission call for increased funding to ramp up hiring to as many as five new classes.
Councilwoman Nury Martinez, a Public Safety Committee member and the only female elected official in City Hall, said she wants to see reforms that allow all candidates a fair shot and help encourage women to apply before new money is provided for firefighter hiring.
"The numbers speak for themselves," she said.
Times staff writer Michael Finnegan contributed to this report.
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