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LAFD's new recruitment chief on diversity: 'We have work to do'

The Los Angeles Fire Commission waded into the controversy over the city’s firefighter hiring practices Tuesday, debating what needs to be done to increase the number of women and minorities in the ranks.

Battalion Chief Alicia Welch, who is leading a stepped-up effort to recruit members of underrepresented groups, outlined a plan intended to help the Los Angeles Fire Department meet Mayor Eric Garcetti’s goal of having the force more closely resemble the city it serves.

The agency’s rank and file has become more racially diverse since the days of segregated firehouses — in large part due to legal decisions that imposed hiring quotas. But whites continue to make up nearly half of uniformed employees in a city where they represent only 29% of the population.

And despite decades of reform efforts, the percentage of female firefighters remains at slightly less than 3% — the same as in 1995.

Fire Chief Ralph M. Terrazas has tasked Welch with developing a program to attract a more diverse pool of qualified applicants, which fire officials believe will ultimately result in more women and minorities being hired.

She is one of only 89 women in the 3,200-member LAFD, city data show.

“For me, that’s not good enough,” Welch said. “We have work to do.”

The new push will assign more staff to recruitment, kick-start firefighting magnet programs at local high schools, hire an advertising firm to create a social media campaign and develop a program to better prepare female and minority candidates. In addition, the department plans to have firefighters connect with potential applicants at trade schools, military bases and women's professional sporting events.

Terrazas has said he expects to double the number of women on the force by 2020.

“I know this is not going to be fixed overnight, but I am confident that we are on the right path and will achieve greater diversity when we are done,” he said. He said he selected Welch to lead the charge because of her passion for improving the process.

Although much of the focus is on introducing more women to the fire service, Fire Commission President Delia Ibarra urged the department’s brass to also prioritize recruitment of Latinos, the most underrepresented ethnic group.

“I hope that we have as much an emphasis on that as we do on other groups,” she said.

The previous recruit screening process was halted last year after The Times reported that thousands of candidates were excluded because key paperwork wasn't received by the city in the first minute of a filing period. Many applicants said they had no idea mere seconds would determine which candidates would advance.

Nearly one-third of the 70 recruits eventually selected in that hiring round were related to LAFD firefighters, and the group's makeup was overwhelmingly white. It included only one woman, who later dropped out.

In response, Garcetti hastily backed changes to the hiring process that included the use of a lottery intended to winnow down the large applicant pool in a more impartial manner.

The Times reported Tuesday that four classes hired under the mayor’s reworked system fell short of numbers needed to significantly diversify the department.

Because state law forbids governments from setting hiring quotas for women and minorities, fire officials contend that working harder to increase the number of applicants from underrepresented groups is their best chance of success.

“It’s time for everybody to step up,” Commissioner Andrew Glazier said.

For the latest data journalism at The Times follow @LATdatadesk and @palewire.

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