Blazes spark an interest in firefighting

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Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The wildfires that scorched Southern California last week convinced Michael Morris that fighting fires is something he wants to do.

“The community has a need for firefighters,” said Morris as he sat in a cavernous gymnasium near Elysian Park waiting to hear a recruiting pitch from the Los Angeles Fire Department.

“I’m looking for a career change,” said the marketing manager, who lives in Westminster.

“I want to be one of those who have the heart to put their lives in danger every day.”

As historic wildfires continued to blaze across Southern California, the department held its quarterly recruitment seminar Saturday.


With many people away fighting the wildfires -- about 25 at last count -- the department had fewer on hand to run the seminar and fewer to spread the word.

About 250 potential recruits showed up.

Morris listened as speakers emphasized the rigors of firefighting and the need for a lifestyle free of bad credit and substance abuse.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa arrived to say the city is hiring “a new generation of firefighters who reflect the city they serve.”

Indeed, these are days of enormous change at the Fire Department.

During the 1990s, it lacked the budget to hire enough firefighters to keep up with attrition, said Bruce Whidden, a city spokesman.

But with an aging force, hired mostly in the 1970s, and a new retirement plan, firefighters have been retiring at an unprecedented rate.

Meanwhile, the department is building more fire stations and adding ambulances and more people to firetrucks.


At the City Council, Whidden said, “There’s the political will to grow the Fire Department and police.”

Since 2002, the department has hired 250 firefighters a year, enough to maintain a stable force of about 3,500 sworn personnel, Whidden said.

The department will continue its hiring effort until at least 2010.

The result: A generational change is underway at the Los Angeles Fire Department. Roughly a third of the force has less than five years’ experience on the job.

All this, in turn, offers the chance to change a widely recognized culture of firehouse hazing.

The department has recently been hit with high-profile lawsuits alleging racial and sexual discrimination that have tarnished its image.

“The vast majority of people in the Fire Department do the right thing,” said Fire Chief Doug Barry, who attended Saturday’s seminar.


Still, he said, the budget to hire recruits as older firefighters retire means “we’re transitioning to a different mindset.”

Most of those who showed up at Saturday’s seminar, promoted in conjunction with Latino Heritage Month, were Latino or black. Roughly 20% were women.

Morris said the lawsuits had little effect on his thinking, since he lives in an area with few blacks.

“I’m a black man in Orange County,” said Morris. “There’s a reality I know and have dealt with.”

Of greater concern to him than firehouse hazing and discrimination was his age: 46.

Many young recruits have already spent years preparing for a firefighter job.

In front of Morris sat Robert Villa, 20, and Chris Obregon, 23, both from Whittier, who have spent their young adult lives dreaming of a job with the department.

Both said they had taken college courses in fire science, had certificates in emergency medical training, had relatives in the department and volunteer with an Fire Department Explorer program.


“I eat, breathe and live LAFD,” said Villa, who showed up in a suit and tie.

Morris was impressed.

“Both of those kids want it so bad,” he said later. “That’s what you’d like to see your kids become.”

He hoped fire officials would see he has the maturity and life experience that younger people lack. And he has dropped 20 pounds to get back to the shape he had as a physical trainer years ago.

“It’s a commitment,” he said. “The community has to find people with honesty and integrity. I’d be honored to be one of those people.”