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Nepotism is no way to staff a fire department

Nepotism is no way to staff a fire department
L.A. County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said sons might be motivated to follow in their fathers' footsteps. But he said that should not give them an advantage over other applicants. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

It's a fact of life: Many kids want to be firefighters when they grow up. Some hold fast to that desire into their early adult years, some percentage of those actually follow through by applying and taking the test, and a fortunate few actually get hired into fire departments. And because kids often want to follow in their parents' footsteps, it stands to reason that children of firefighters would be well represented in the firefighting workforce.

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FOR THE RECORD:

An Oct. 27 editorial said that 183 sons of Los Angeles County firefighters have been hired by the department since 2012. In fact, that is how many sons have been on the payroll at some point since the start of 2012. The editorial also said that "exam questions" were circulated through the department; they were interview questions.

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Still, a Times investigation by staff writer Paul Pringle suggests that there is more at work in the Los Angeles County Fire Department than a simple aspiration to follow a parent's lead. An analysis showed that 13% of the 2,750 firefighters who have served in the department since 2012 were relatives of department veterans — a high enough proportion to suggest that, either by design or by inattention, the county is improperly favoring legacy hires.

The report brings to mind the nepotism in the city of L.A.'s Fire Department, where 1 in 4 applicants picked for a recent academy class were relatives of department members. Family members apparently got a leg up in the city system because they were in the information loop: They knew to get their paperwork in within 60 seconds after the filing period opened because candidates were picked on a first-come, first-served basis.

Although the county's nepotism appears less egregious if you just consider the numbers, it is in some ways more troubling because, as the Times story recounts, exam questions are circulated among favored applicants in contravention of department policy.

Los Angeles County is the region's second-biggest employer, and county jobs bring good pay, good benefits and an unusually high level of job security. Of all county positions, Fire Department jobs are among the most competitive and should go to those applicants who are best qualified, not those with an inside track on information. County jobs must not be allowed to become family heirlooms.

Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby correctly moved to scrap the exam questions and answers that were exchanged among department veterans and applicants. But that's not enough. He and other fire officials must thoroughly examine their hiring process to ensure that it cannot be gamed to favor relatives or any other group. The department must ensure that it's recruitment policies are broad enough to attract would-be applicants from a wide variety of backgrounds, in part to snuff out any perception that county Fire Department hiring is an inside job.

It also means taking a serious look at the county's hiring of female firefighters. While the department hired 183 sons of fire personnel since 2012, it has only 38 women in uniform, regardless of relationship to other department personnel.

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