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Los Angeles outsources firefighters exam, which will now come with a price tag

Members of the Los Angeles Civil Service Commission voted unanimously Thursday to replace the test the city uses to hire new firefighters, the latest change to a selection process that Mayor Eric Garcetti has struggled to reform in his bid to root out nepotism and diversify the department’s rank and file.

The five-person civilian board approved outsourcing the written firefighter exam to Burbank-based PSI Services, which will charge applicants $69 to enter next year’s round of hiring, scheduled to be announced on Friday.

Personnel Department officials testified that the private company will deliver a superior computerized test and reduce the burden on city workers who have struggled to manage the massive pool of applicants routinely seeking coveted slots in the Los Angeles Fire Department.

In March of last year, Garcetti halted hiring at LAFD after a series of Times reports prompted him to condemn the city's selection methods as "fatally flawed."

Soon after, the mayor retooled the process, vowing to introduce more women and minorities to the ranks of an agency that remains primarily white and overwhelmingly male.

More than a year later, with those reforms showing little progress toward the mayor’s goals, city officials changed the system again Thursday.

Next year, all applicants must take the new written test with PSI Services and pay to take the test, which previously was administered for free. Those who pass will be entered in a lottery, with a limited number of winners selected to move on to a rigorous screening process that includes a background check, scored interview and other exams.

The move to charge for the written exam drew protests from Capt. Cheyane Caldwell, a leader in the Stentorians, a group representing the city’s black firefighters.

“It’s an issue for kids in the inner city to come up with $10 to buy lunch,” Caldwell said. “Now they got to come up with $69 to take this exam? That’s an issue.”

After Thursday’s vote, Caldwell predicted that putting a price tag on the test will reduce the number of applications from the disadvantaged groups the LAFD is trying to attract.

City officials said that stepped-up recruitment efforts aimed at attracting those minorities, as well as 400 vouchers set aside to cover testing costs for people in poverty, will help address the issue.

"No one who wants to take the test [will be] turned away because they cannot pay the fee," Garcetti said in a statement released late Thursday. "We will continue to innovate to meet our goals of hiring more women and people of color — and will make changes if reforms fail to show results."

Several commissioners expressed reservations about approving the new fees, but all ultimately voted to send the plan ahead.

“I want to trust the system,” said Nancy McClelland, the board’s vice president. “But I’m not completely comfortable.”

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Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

6:45 pm: Added a statement from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. Here is the full text:

"From my first day in office, I have been commited to ensuring that the Los Angeles Fire Department has the most qualified members, reflecting the great diversity of our City. These changes to our testing process give every applicant who wants to take the LAFD exam the chance to do so. I will also make sure that no one who wants to take the test is turned away because they cannot pay the fee. We will continue to innovate to meet our goals of hiring more women and people of color - and will make changes if reforms fail to show results."

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