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California

L.A. has hired more female firefighters. Why is the department still dominated by men?

Firefighters Chelsey Grigsby, Brenda Greenbank and Kathryn Hersman
Chelsey Grigsby, left, Brenda Greenbank and Kathryn Hersman are three of the five female firefighters who joined the Los Angeles Fire Department in 2016.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Mayor Eric Garcetti is on track to miss his 2020 goal to greatly increase the number of women who work as firefighters for the Los Angeles Fire Department, renewing questions about why more women aren’t on the force.

Just 3.3% of the city’s 3,372 firefighters are female, according to the latest data prepared by the LAFD. That’s short of the 5% that Garcetti and the department had vowed to reach this year.

When Garcetti first took office in 2013, women made up 2.9% of the force.

By other measures, the LAFD is making strides in changing an institution that’s struggled to overcome a legacy tainted by allegations of sexism and racism. Also, a Times investigation in 2013 found that the department’s hiring system potentially favored insiders and, therefore, failed to increase the number of women and minorities.

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Today, there are 110 sworn female firefighters, compared with 92 in 2013 — an increase that Garcetti quotes in speeches and interviews. More women than ever are in top leadership positions inside the department and female recruits are graduating in greater numbers from the fire academy, according to city staff and department data.

The new numbers don’t include the growing number of female recruits who are enrolled in the academy.

Garcetti said that changing the Fire Department will take time. He cited the 2016 launch of Girls Camp, which teaches youths about firefighting, as an example of the city’s long-term strategy.

“The investments you make now, you reap the benefit about a decade later,” he said. “It’s about making sure that there are opportunities for girls to picture themselves as firefighters and making sure that the women who are there feel like the culture is welcoming.”

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Attorney Nana Gyamfi, who has represented firefighters in discrimination cases against the city, said women still face the false premise that “firefighting is men’s work.”

“There is this idea that women are signing up to try to prove that they can do what men can do,” Gyamfi said. “Of course that’s ridiculous. The reasons that women choose to be firefighters are as varied, and often similar, to the reasons men choose to be firefighters.”

Kris Larson, the first black female battalion chief at the department, said she’s encouraged that more women are joining the academy and graduating compared with years past.

“Where we were and where we are now is a lot of progress,” she said.

Nationwide, about 3.5% of all firefighters were women last year, according to the National Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The mayor and his wife, Amy Wakeland, have made increasing the number of women at City Hall, including the Fire Department, a top priority. After his first election, Garcetti vowed to bring “much-needed change to the culture” of the predominantly white, male force. He also suspended hiring in 2014 after the Times investigation.

Legal costs have been an 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.

Los Angeles Fire Department Battalion Chief Kris Larson
Los Angeles Fire Department Battalion Chief Kris Larson speaks during a Fire Commission meeting this month.
(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)
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Male and female recruits attend a 22-week boot camp, taking part in rigorous drills that require them to scale ladders and carry hoses, tools and other fire equipment. The department has historically seen lower graduation rates for women compared with men.

However, a study of two classes of recruits in 2018 found that 67% of women graduated, compared with an earlier study of 15 classes from 2014 to 2017, in which only 59% of female recruits graduated.

Larson, who oversees recruiting, said it’s not possible for the department to hit its 5% target this year because there aren’t enough women that will graduate from the academy. She also said that several female firefighters have recently retired.

Meanwhile, the debate over diversity at the department has sparked a public feud involving some of Garcetti’s appointees on the Fire Commission — the independent body that oversees policy at the LAFD — and the firefighters union.

Some commissioners have questioned the academy’s graduation rates, including for women, prompting pushback from the union. Leaders there have suggested the commissioners have overstepped their roles.

Terrazas
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, right, with Fire Chief Ralph M. Terrazas.
(Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

At last week’s commission meeting, firefighter union chief Freddy Escobar accused Commissioner Rebecca Ninburg of pressuring LAFD staff to graduate female recruits. At the same meeting, commissioner Andrew Glazier said the department’s culture “avoids actively confronting uncomfortable truths,” prompting Escobar to tell Glazier that his comments were “insulting.”

Ninburg said in an email that she “never pressured personnel to pass an unqualified recruit out of the LAFD Academy. My goal is to make certain the department is pursuing and upholding the highest levels of excellence and service at all times and in every area of the department, while continuing to increase diversity throughout the LAFD.”

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Larson said she’s worried the spat, which also has played out on social media, will hurt efforts to attract women.

“It’s important there’s a positive image” for the department, she said.

Garcetti declined to comment on the feud.

Another source of controversy has revolved around a fire captain who worked at the academy and died by suicide in 2016.

In December, a city panel voted to award the captain’s widow a $9,278-per-month pension because it found that his death was related to his work after a hearing in which Fire Department staff testified that he was unhappy working as an instructor because he felt pressure to graduate recruits, including minorities and women.

Capt. Anthony Navarro testified that the captain wrote a letter of termination for a female recruit who fell twice from an aerial ladder. Instead, the recruit was reassigned to another academy, Navarro testified.

Firefighter Jennifer Bailey told the panel that there is “political pressure” for instructors to pass recruits, even if they aren’t qualified.

The mayor’s office also declined to comment on this case.


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