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L.A. City Controller’s Audit Is Critical of Fire Department

Times Staff Writer

A survey of new recruits and minority and female firefighters at the Los Angeles Fire Department found that the majority believe they work in a hostile environment where sexual harassment, racial discrimination and hazing are rife.

Specifically, 87% of African Americans who answered the survey said they either had experienced or were aware of discrimination, and nearly 80% of women said the same.

The audit, released Thursday by City Controller Laura Chick, also found that many firefighters believe discipline in the department is arbitrary and unjust, regardless of race, gender or rank.

Chick faulted top management, including the Fire Commission, for the ongoing problems in the department. In particular she faulted Fire Chief William Bamattre, saying the chief’s vision for the department is poorly communicated to middle management and to firefighters in the field.

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“The lack of strong leadership from the top management -- that means the commission and that means the chief,” Chick said.

She called for the department to create a separate internal affairs division, similar to those in many police departments.

Bamattre said much progress has been made, particularly in increasing the 3,900-strong department’s ethnic diversity, but he agreed that harassment and discrimination remain a part of firehouse culture.

“We support their findings entirely on that, and it’s a real challenge,” the chief said Thursday. Firefighters know harassment is unacceptable, he said, but that does not stop them from either watching it or joining in.

“Part of the problem is the slow willingness of the fire service -- not just our department -- to accept that respect in the workplace has become the law now,” the chief said.

The harassment and hazing are also fueled by a larger change in firefighting, Bamattre said. Instead of spending most of their time battling flames, firefighters now respond mostly to medical emergencies.

“Eighty percent of our workload is medical, and the skill set we’re looking for now is a higher, more academic” one, Bamattre said.

Old-school firefighting required bravery, strength, speed and dexterity. The new firefighter requires additional skills, he said.

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The harassment, Bamattre said, is real.

During his own interviews with female firefighters, he said, many have told him they had experienced sexual harassment but did not report it to him or others in the administration, fearing retaliation.

“I think things have improved, without a doubt. But the work environment, particularly with women, is too slow to change,” Bamattre said.

Chick also faulted Bamattre for accepting recruits who had not passed the academy’s exam.

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In 75 cases where officials within the Fire Department said recruits were not up to standards and should not be admitted for training, Bamattre overruled them 45 times and accepted the recruits.

About 78% of women and 40% of African Americans among those 45 ultimately were not accepted as firefighters.

“What I’m saying is that’s a dangerous way to increase diversity,” she said. She linked the hazing and harassment in fire stations to resentment about hiring. “What’s happened is firefighters in the field feel it is their responsibility to make sure these recruits are qualified” and are using their own methods to “weed out” recruits.

Bamattre said the numbers tell a different story.

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Of those 45, nine were women, 10 were African American, 11 were Latinos, 13 were white and two were Asian.

They were all within one or two points of passing the academy exam, he said.

Ultimately, 25 of those who received training passed probation and went on to become firefighters, Bamattre said. “That means there were 25 candidates we would have made a poor decision on without giving them that chance,” he said.

In a letter to the commission, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called on the agency to develop a plan to address the recommendations in the audit within 90 days.

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“Strong and independent leadership of the Fire Department requires that we take advantage of the opportunity the controller’s audit presents to address long-standing concerns about the internal functioning of the department,” he wrote.


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