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Editorial: It’s time for a woman to lead the LAFD. But she can’t fix the department’s culture alone

Chief Deputy Kristin Crowley has been selected to be chief of the L.A. Fire Department
Chief Deputy Kristin Crowley has been selected by Mayor Eric Garcetti to be the next chief of the Los Angeles Fire Department.
(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Mayor Eric Garcetti’s decision to nominate Chief Deputy Kristin Crowley to be the next chief of the Los Angeles Fire Department is a significant milestone. She will be the first woman to lead the 136-year-old department.

But making history isn’t enough. Not for the LAFD.

Crowley will take the helm of a department in turmoil — again — and in desperate need of foundational reform but resistant to change.

In recent months, women firefighters and civil rights activists have criticized Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas, who was appointed in 2014 to be a reformer but hasn’t done enough to root out the “frat house” culture that can leave women and minority firefighters feeling bullied and mistreated. Terrazas is retiring at the end of March. Black and Latino firefighters have complained there is widespread racial bias within the department and have called for a federal investigation into corruption and potential violations of civil rights.

Mayor Eric Garcetti apparently gave up on trying to reform the Fire Department culture.

And a long-awaited survey of the department’s workplace culture found that more than half of female employees and 40% of Black and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islanders firefighters said bullying and harassment are problems within the department. Among all LAFD firefighters, 70% lack trust in their leaders.

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Meanwhile, the department could be facing a mass exodus of firefighters who have opposed the city’s vaccine mandate for employees. Dozens of firefighters are expected to be fired for refusing to get vaccinated, and hundreds more have filed for medical or religious exemptions, which may or may not be upheld by the city.

Losing so many firefighters would create upheaval, but it also presents an opportunity to change outdated operations, as columnist Steve Lopez has argued. The department could replace departing firefighters with paramedics since 85% of calls are for medical response, not fires. LAFD leaders and the powerful firefighters union have opposed such a move. But the LAFD should be willing to rethink how it does business, in the face of rising costs and changing needs.

If emergency responders and front-line medical providers won’t put their patients’ safety first, they shouldn’t be on the job.

Is Crowley the right person to lead the LAFD through the turmoil and reshape it into a more modern, resilient agency? Reformers think so. She is an experienced, respected leader. She’s risen through the ranks over two decades and held practically every sworn job in the department from firefighter paramedic to fire marshal to chief deputy, which is the second in command. In her current role she helped develop a plan to make the department culture more open to change, and she said Tuesday that she’s committed to inclusion and diversity in the department.

Crowley may be the ideal fire chief for the moment, but she will never be able to reform the department alone. City Hall has too often ignored troubles within the fire agency. It’s politically easy to praise firefighters for their heroism and harder to confront the deeper cultural problems and entrenched institutional practices that have marred the agency.

To be successful, Crowley will need strong backing from the city’s leaders. Council President Nury Martinez said Tuesday that Crowley has her “full support in addressing any changes that need to be made.” Good, but Crowley will need the same commitment from the next mayor, who will appoint his or her own civilian Fire Commission to oversee the department. (Garcetti, who is awaiting confirmation to become ambassador to India, could be gone before Crowley starts the job.)

For nearly three decades, there have been varying attempts to transform the LAFD culture and make it a more inclusive department. But those efforts ran into the same wall of internal opposition that Crowley will now face. This is the ideal moment for change, and we hope Crowley can help deliver it.


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