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Column: The Los Angeles Fire Department’s sexism problem

Los Angeles Fire Department Battalion Chief Kris Larson speaks at a lectern.
Battalion Chief Kris Larson speaks at a Fire Commission meeting in January 2020. She and other women within the Los Angeles Fire Department have long called for a study of the organization and its issues.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

When I reached Kris Larson on Thursday, she was in Spokane, Wash., attending an international conference for female firefighters. Larson, 55, is president of Los Angeles Women in the Fire Service, and has worked as an L.A. firefighter for 31 years.

Over time, she has risen to the rank of battalion chief and is currently the only Black female officer in the department.

She is, as are many of her firefighter sisters, deeply unhappy about the dearth of women on the force and about the fact that women are hazed, harassed or disrespected by some of their male colleagues.

“You have a small group who feel it’s their mission to make everyone miserable,” Larson said. “The fact is when we pull that fire engine out the door, we will get that emergency solved working together. When we are back in the firehouse, though, we have trouble with the way we treat each other.”

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This is an especially fraught moment for the Los Angeles Fire Department, a widely respected agency that has nevertheless been beset for decades by accusations of sexism and racism.

A few years ago, Larson said, a white fire captain put a toy monkey in the locker of a Black female firefighter. The incident was not widely publicized, but it came up in a recent meeting of the Fire Commission, a panel of five civilians who oversee the department.

Larson was invited to discuss her group’s efforts to improve the work lives of female firefighters.

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Opinion Columnist

Robin Abcarian

“That was a straight-up racially derogatory act towards an African American,” Larson told me later when I asked about the monkey incident. The firefighter transferred, Larson said, and the captain is still on the job.

In June, six Black fire inspectors filed a lawsuit contending that the department is run by a “good old white boys club” that unfairly doles out promotions.

In July, my colleagues James Rainey and Dakota Smith wrote about the department’s “frat house culture” — such as leaving feces on the floor in women’s restrooms — which has driven women out.

Also in July, leaders of groups representing Black and Latino firefighters called for a federal investigation into what they allege is widespread racial bias after my colleague Paul Pringle’s report that a high-ranking white fire official who was allegedly drunk on the job got preferential treatment. The Justice Department has said it is “carefully reviewing” the complaint.

And, of course, in August, Capt. Cristian Granucci’s emotionally overwrought video rant against the city’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate gave the department a huge black eye. “When will this tyranny stop?” Granucci demanded.

Seeing a veteran first responder selfishly put politics over public health hit Angelenos like a slap in the face. The now-infamous video unleashed an unprecedented backlash against the LAFD.

I had to ask Larson the burning question: Are you vaccinated?

“Of course,” she said with a chuckle. “I’m not stupid.”

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Larson has been publicly critical of the department’s complaint tracking system, implemented by Chief Ralph Terrazas. It’s a big improvement over the previous scattershot approach, in which complaints were handled at the discretion of each of 14 battalion chiefs overseeing the city’s 109 fire houses.

Still, while the new tracking system is a step in the right direction, Larson said, it’s not perfect. Confidentiality is nearly impossible to guarantee, and many women are “deathly afraid of retribution,” particularly if their status is probationary.

“If I put in a complaint, especially as a female, I am going to be labeled a complainer,” she told the Fire Commission in September. “I will be ostracized and criticized.”

In the city of Los Angeles, only 3.5% of the sworn force is female — 115 of 3,300 — despite outgoing Mayor Eric Garcetti’s vow to raise that figure to 5%. Unfortunately, that goal seems out of reach.

“The military has 10 to 15% women,” Larson said. “Police long ago realized that having women on the force can be beneficial. But the Fire Department is woefully behind.”

The LAFD is not just woefully behind on recruiting and hiring women. It is also woefully behind on an organizational study that Larson’s group asked for four years ago.

The idea was to get a clear picture of any flaws or biases that might impede the hiring, retention and promotion of women.

“We went to the City Council and requested $200,000 for the assessment,” Larson said. “It was us, the women. The mayor has made it seem like it was his idea.”

Though the money was approved, it was somehow never allocated.

Finally, however, the chief found the funds, and the study is to be released sometime next year.

I’m guessing the study will tell us what we already know from anecdotes, lawsuits, depositions and news reports. The LAFD has a serious problem with gender inequality.

It will also, one hopes, provide a road map to a more equitable future for women in the LAFD.

I doubt anyone is holding her breath.

“There’s a joke that’s been going around the department forever,” Larson told me. “One hundred years of tradition not impeded by progress.”

@AbcarianLAT


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