Women Firefighters: The Gender Boondoggle 

City Hall's dream of recruiting more females is a multimillion-dollar disaster

Wednesday, Jan 23 2008

The fresh-looking rookie firefighters, decked out in black hats, pants and shirts, pose by a hook-and-ladder truck, smiling broadly at a crowd of graduation-day guests. Firefighters pass out Cokes and nachos, and young girls rush giggling past the drill tower — a six-story concrete replica of an apartment building — to check out the sweatshirts for sale by the Los Angeles Fire Department.

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Hose envy: Hoisting heavy equipment gets the best of some trainees.

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Wall of men: Three women hoped to graduate this day; all washed out.

With the national anthem booming, the celebration at Drill Academy 40 on Terminal Island takes on a circus quality. The huge fire-station door yawns open, revealing the rookies — now orderly and marching forth — trailed by theatrical "smoke." Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is a no-show, and so is Fire Chief Douglas Barry — off at a conference in Salt Lake City — so the grads are welcomed by Battalion Chief Emile Mack, who tells them the Los Angeles firefighter is an "American icon."

It is impossible not to notice that every one of the 42 rookies graduating on December 7 is male.

Three women were supposed to graduate. One was a 48-year-old grandmother — an emergency medical technician and former airport baggage handler who failed key physical tests just weeks into the fire-academy training. Another, a young former soccer player for Notre Dame, nearly made it through, but failed on drills to raise heavy wooden ladders against a building — as firefighters must do during a fire. The third was a tough former Air Force intelligence officer, terminated from the academy because she couldn't maintain the grueling pace.

Also read Christine Pelisek'sLawsuit Sweepstakes at LAFD.

What remains is a wall of men that typifies City Hall's two-decade effort, launched by long-departed city Fire Commissioner Ann Reiss Lane, and council members like Jackie Goldberg, who espoused the popular but untested view that fire departments should be 20 percent female. Women, it was widely held, were discriminatorily kept off the fire lines.

That sounded right. Women had been kept out of police work and were finally, in the 1990s, flooding into jobs as cops. Wasn't firefighting the same problem, with the same solution?

To prove its point, Los Angeles City Hall — just like Seattle, Miami, San Francisco, San Diego and other major cities, together with state governments — spent millions to recruit, train and house women. Los Angeles outfitted most of its 106 fire stations with costly women's lockers and women's showers, while politicians as well as fire chiefs Donald Manning and William Bamattre engaged in years of lip service, conjuring up an image of a new, professional class of woman firefighters.

Women came to figure prominently in the praise party on the LAFD's Web site, www.LAFD.org, where the Hero of the Month, for six months running — in a department of mostly men — has been Tamara Chick, a woman so key to the department's goals that she is now in charge of female recruitment.

There's just one problem, and it's a problem no fire chief, mayor or recruiter wants to admit. In a department of 3,940 people, the second largest municipal firefighting force in the U.S., the Weekly has learned that the women who work on the fire line could squeeze inside a Hummer limo.

Just 27 women are actually fighting Los Angeles fires.

The number is staggering in its shock value. In the 2006-2007 fiscal year, the department lured just four women — three of whom didn't make it. In this fiscal year, the Fire Department has managed to recruit eight women, two of whom have already washed out. Few of the eight will end up wearing the yellow helmet and jacket of a firefighter.

One of those who didn't make it was Angela Vesey, 33, a mother of two. As an Air Force intelligence officer, she worked with teams of all-male pilots in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia — and is not accustomed to failing around men. "I have no doubt in my mind," she says. "I am going to be a firefighter."

But not anytime soon. She was terminated by her trainers halfway through the 17-week academy and looks upon the LAFD's requirements as "much more difficult" than her military training.

Another casualty was "Mary" — an extremely fit runner who washed out long before her graduation day. Like many fire trainees, she suffered an injury that healed slowly and decided not to repeat the arduous training.

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