L.A.’s female firefighters face ‘hostile’ workplace, Garcetti appointee says

City of Los Angeles Fire Commissioner Rebecca Ninburg
Fire Commissioner Rebecca Ninburg, shown in 2018, testified that the city’s fire department is “a very hostile work environment” for female firefighters.
(Los Angeles Times)

One of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s top appointees at the Fire Department testified that her agency is “a very hostile work environment” for female firefighters — and accused Garcetti of failing to take the situation seriously.

Rebecca Ninburg, who has spent nearly six years on the Board of Fire Commissioners, described complaints from a former Los Angeles firefighter, whose story was recently covered by The Times, about allegations that male firefighters exposed themselves to female co-workers.

Ninburg discussed the Fire Department during a recent deposition in a lawsuit filed against the city by a Los Angeles police officer who accused Rick Jacobs, a high-level Garcetti advisor, of sexual harassment. The officer, Matt Garza, also alleged that Garcetti witnessed some of the inappropriate behavior and did nothing to stop it.


Jacobs and Garcetti deny the allegations.

Although much of Ninburg’s deposition dealt with those claims, she also discussed the city’s response to allegations that female firefighters had been sexually harassed by their colleagues.

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“I mean, this is a very hostile work environment for women, a very hostile work environment,” Ninburg testified, adding later: “The women are not safe to speak. They cannot talk about their — what has happened to them. It is not safe to do that. The same with the African Americans, it is just not safe.”

The Times reviewed Ninburg’s deposition on Tuesday. She declined to be interviewed about her testimony.

Fire Department spokeswoman Cheryl Getuiza said her agency has “zero tolerance” for behavior that creates a hostile work environment, and trains its employees to prevent and respond to such incidents. When complaints occur, they are taken seriously and investigated, she said.

Garcetti’s office offered a similar message, saying the mayor is committed to creating a workplace at every city agency that is “safe and supportive for everyone.”


In recent months, Garcetti’s appointees on the five-member fire commission have been engulfed in turmoil. One commissioner, Andrew Glazier, complained that the mayor ousted him in response to pressure from the firefighter union, a claim Garcetti and the union have denied.

Ninburg has voiced frustration over what some women have described as a “frat house” culture at fire stations. But others in the department, including some female firefighters, have contested Ninburg’s assertions.

Firefighter Chelsey Grigsby, who works out of Station 20 in Echo Park, said in an interview Tuesday that she and her female colleagues have been given “every avenue to succeed.”

“I have never been treated unfairly or felt that I cannot speak my mind or anything like that, ever,” she said.

Delia Ibarra, who serves on the fire commission with Ninburg, said there is racism and sexism in the department, just as there is in larger society. However, some bias claims lodged against the department have not been upheld, she said.

“I don’t think it’s fair to say that it’s a hostile work environment,” she said in an interview. “I think it’s getting better. And I don’t think we get credit for how much things have changed.”

During her deposition, Ninburg also described what she said was a lack of support for a study to examine women’s experiences at the department. Ninburg said one Garcetti aide told her that preserving the firefighter union’s support for the mayor was more important than carrying out that study.

Ninburg said the back-and-forth over the study began in 2016, when a survey of women showed “high levels of sexual harassment” within the department. In response, the commission called for an assessment of the department’s culture, she said.

When funding for that assessment appeared to be in jeopardy, Ninburg said she and others went to Councilwoman Nury Martinez to ask for help in restoring the money. Ninburg said she and several other women were later removed from the working group seeking the assessment study.

Ninburg testified that she confronted Deputy Mayor Jeff Gorell, who oversees public safety issues, telling him that Martinez would not fund the assessment if the women were not directing it. Gorell, she said, replied by saying that the mayor’s administration “does not care” about Martinez.

“And [Gorell] said ... ‘Nury Martinez is not going to get the mayor a senate or governor’s seat, but the union will,’” Ninburg testified.

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Glazier, the fire commissioner who left earlier this year, told The Times on Wednesday that Ninburg called him shortly after she spoke with Gorell in 2019 and described her exchange with the deputy mayor. “She was floored by it,” Glazier said.

Gorell, in an email, called Ninburg’s description of the conversation “simply false.”

“This conversation did not happen, and I was beside myself when I heard Ms. Ninburg had made these outrageous claims,” he said.

Gorell said the idea for the study came from the mayor and was sidetracked by the recent budget crisis — but is now underway. “Any suggestion that it was delayed intentionally by politics is cynical and completely at odds with how the mayor and his administration make decisions,” he said.

Asked about the deposition and its characterization of Gorell’s conversation with Ninburg, Martinez said women in the workplace are frequently “undermined, disrespected and belittled.”

“Comments like these, as reported, are nothing new in an office setting,” she said in a statement. “The workplace culture needs to change throughout our city for women and clearly we should start in our own building.”

Ninburg’s deposition comes amid other scrutiny of the department.

The City Council last week ordered a review of the department’s disciplinary procedures in the wake of a Times investigation that showed the agency’s leaders failed to take prompt action against a high-ranking white officer who was reported to be under the influence on duty.