Trial by fire for L.A.’s ‘interim’ fire chief
James G. Featherstone, named Los Angeles’ interim fire chief by Mayor Eric Garcetti, says he won’t be a placeholder. He plans to deal with recruitment and deployment issues and hopes to modernize the department’s data and technology programs.
His first day on his new job was the day of the LAX shooting, and it’s been lights and sirens ever since. James G. Featherstone, Los Angeles’ interim fire chief, hasn’t unpacked his books or hung framed inspirational works like a Frederic Remington print accompanied by a quote from retired Gen. David H. Petraeus about being “comfortable with semi-chaotic situations.” Featherstone, who retired after 22 years as a city firefighter, was heading the city’s Emergency Management Department when Mayor Eric Garcetti summoned him back to manage his old team. He’ll need all the inspiration he can get to lead a department that a city commissioned study says is in need of a total makeover.
When you’re rank and file in any job, you shoot the breeze and say, “Well, if I were in charge …” Now you are.
I never thought I’d be in charge! My perspectives have changed somewhat [from] when I was [a firefighter]. Growing up in the department has been beneficial; my six years running the Emergency Management Department was almost like going to grad school.
The Fire Department, like a lot of large, hierarchical organizations, is slow to change, and I’m not one to change for the sake of change. There’s a Peter Drucker quote, “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” The good ideas we come up with, we have to be careful that a large organization can accept.
We need to embrace data more. We will have Firestat [a data system paralleling the LAPD’s Comstat system].
We [still] have big technology [issues] and everyday, working technology [issues]. It took me over a month to get a computer in my office that’s contemporary. The automatic vehicle locater [technology] should be on its way by midsummer. That’ll impact response time. Right now we dispatch from the closest fire station, and that’s old technology. With AVL, we will literally dispatch the closest resource to the incident.
What else is on your to-do list?
My four priorities are service delivery, training and recruitment, leadership development and technology.
Service delivery hasn’t changed in several decades. Part of the way it’s sustained itself [is that] the men and women of the department deliver high-quality services. That being said, we need to continue to move the needle.
Leadership means putting together an executive team that’s not [only] looking at an honorable and cherished tradition but at what’s on the horizon. I’m sure I’ll make some unpopular decisions; that comes with the territory.
Did the mayor give you a checklist?
He didn’t necessarily give me a checklist. He wants to start moving to a data-driven culture, to start looking at technological improvements, at the overall culture. The mayor didn’t put me here to be a place-holder. It’s not my nature. When possible, you should always leave an assignment better than what you inherited. I will act as if I am the fire chief, without the “interim.”
One piece of technology that didn’t work so well was the recent 60-second cutoff for receiving online job applications, which excluded thousands of potentially qualified applicants.
Before I took the seat, I got a briefing from personnel; it was the first knowledge I had, and I’m thinking that it was embarrassing, that we were arbitrary.
How can you address diversity issues for a department that doesn’t look like L.A.?
I’m certainly sensitive to diversity. The Fire Department, at least recently, has done a fairly decent job. In the latest recruiting effort [which resulted in a class that’s less diverse than the rest of the department], I’m turning over more stones. We need to look at the front end; we need to professionalize recruitment. “Army of one; be all that you can be” — the military was smart enough to invest in professional PR and advertising. Maybe one of our strategies is to invest in people who do this for a living. The face still needs to be the firefighters; we are our own best recruiters.
Among the latest recruits, nearly 1 in 4 was the son or nephew of a current firefighter. That doesn’t send the message that the department wants to change.
Where there was the appearance of possible conflict of interest, I’ve moved personnel to other assignments. I don’t think there’s been any malicious intent. The people I moved, they’re good folks. It was a hard decision. I thought the optics were bad.
We’re going to get [recruits] who have relatives on the job — our families see us do the job, so it’s only natural they would want to be firefighters. What I have to ensure is that the process is fair. I can do a lot about that.
The city has paid out $20 million over the years in discrimination lawsuits against the LAFD. Did discrimination ever touch you?
Have I experienced discrimination? Absolutely. [When] I came on the department in 1986, I was older, I’d been in the military, so there were things I was not going to tolerate as a grown person.
Some recommend restoring the LAFD to its pre-cuts budget. There are also calls to find money by making the department’s 911 call takers civilians, as in some cities.
It may work for them. Here, there’s a lot of validity to having sworn firefighters. We have call takers and we have dispatchers. The call taker picks up 911, discusses your issue with you, then sends the right resource. Once the resource is running, that resource talks with a dispatcher. There’s an advantage in call takers being sworn firefighters. They can sense what’s happening out there; they can read the silence between the notes. Certainly there are some jobs that can be civilianized. But it would take some significant study.
About 80% of calls are for medical assistance, not fires. Should the department change to reflect that?
All recruits have to be emergency medical technicians by the time they start the academy. In South L.A., my first day with a brand-new crew, I explained we were all about being aggressive firefighters but to be able to intervene for a person who’d had a heart attack or traumatic injury — that was the greatest difference we could make on any single day.
The Times reported the average firefighter makes about $143,000 a year, with salary and overtime. After the five-year hiring freeze, which left more than 200 vacancies, do you hire more people or pay more overtime?
When you stop hiring — and we lose about 10 [retirees] a month — at some point overtime becomes excessive, which doesn’t look good in the paper. Firefighters are working more than they should, so we get into a safety issue. Firefighters probably don’t want to give up the overtime, but we do need to hire; we can’t run the fire department solely on overtime.
Councilman Mike Bonin said morale is in the toilet in the department.
I don’t agree. I talk to [the firefighters] all the time. They’re happy with the changes. They see the top starting to change. For the most part, they’re very supportive. There’s hope; there’s also an expectation that the department will move forward.
You spent nearly two decades working with the union, as chief negotiator and a member of the executive board. Is that a good thing for your new post?
It’s a very good thing. It has to do with understanding the labor side. [People wonder], will I side with labor, will I side with management? I like to think I’m going to side with the right side.
Is there a fire department you know of that does it right?
The Los Angeles Fire Department!
Is there another model?
All big cities are unique; each is going to have idiosyncrasies. People talk about [bringing] a Bill Bratton of the fire service here. It’s not that simple. I’ve got a lot of respect for Chief Bratton, [but] let’s be careful in what we expect.
I’m a big proponent of getting off the island, to go validate your premises and see what Boston’s doing, San Francisco, Houston. If it makes a safer environment and more productive environment, we can bring it back here. Everything doesn’t have to be homegrown.
Every fire department must face different challenges.
Out of the 16 disasters defined [by the federal government], 13 could happen here.
What are we missing?
Snowstorms, hurricanes and volcanic eruptions!
So what keeps you awake at night?
The same things I’ve thought about for 10 years. Pandemics — urbanization has brought us much closer together. A bioterrorist event. Catastrophic wildfires. Climate change. Catastrophic earthquake. And cyber disaster. Cyber disaster isn’t necessarily a computer virus. [He points at the light fixture.] Light — our dependence on electricity. In New York, on Day 36 after [Superstorm] Sandy, New York was still paying $2 million a day for emergency power.
This interview was edited and excerpted. email@example.com Twitter: @pattmlatimes
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