By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Vesey's story is much the same. She was contacted by the department after applying online and joined the training academy in August. She was unprepared for how tough it was. "I would fail on the hose-lay and only have a couple of hours on the ladder," she recalls. "Then I would fail the ladder."
But of the captains who trained her along with 45 men, Vesey says, "I respected them. I wanted to be on their crew. The people at the tower were phenomenal. They really wanted you to learn."
It's not easy for anyone. According to a fire-department official who refused to be named, 35 percent of the men since the summer of 2006 have failed to finish their training. During the same time period, however, all of the women have failed to do so. Along with many men, two women are retrying.
Today, Los Angeles boasts a dozen newly built locker rooms for women citywide. Most days, they sit eerily empty, and men sometimes use the space to study. The abandoned lockers are a testament to a social-engineering experiment gone bad, a failed dream unfolding from New York to San Francisco to Oakland — to Los Angeles.
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Of two minds: D'Lisa Davies is both a top department spokeswoman and one of the women the Weekly has learned is making a claim against the department.
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The abandoned women’s lockers citywide are a testament to a social-engineering experiment gone bad.
No firefighting women died during the attacks on the World Trade Center, because New York City has just 31 women out of 11,600 firefighters. Women represent only 2.5 percent of the nearly 300,000 professional firefighters nationwide. At the Los Angeles County Fire Department, a sprawling agency that protects many small cities not covered by the LAFD, women make up less than 1 percent. In Long Beach, 2.8 percent. By those paltry standards, the LAFD is slightly ahead.
Yet politicians in L.A. appear clueless about what is actually unfolding at fire academies and fire stations, repeating the 1990s view that women are being kept off the fire lines by bias and prejudice.
"We need more women because they add a depth and diversity," says City Councilman Richard Alarcon. "This old-boy network needs to get onboard with today's reality and stop sticking its head in the sand. I am hopeful the [new] chief will accomplish this."
In truth, there's little evidence that Alarcon is right — and former chief William Bamattre tells the Weekly that the effort inside City Hall to continue portraying the force or its brass as impeding women "is wrong." "The reality is these are brutal jobs and most women don't want it," says a captain who refused to be named because he fears a political backlash. "It is not the romantic career portrayed 20 years ago."
The captain dismisses with scorn the social engineers who dominated City Hall when it embarked on this pursuit, saying, "[Jackie] Goldberg was the beginning of our nightmare. We have been plagued by people who think like her. ...With their mission to bring women into the fire service, they have thrown every rule out for hiring and recruitment."
Since the summer of 2006, the LAFD has hired some 200 new members a year to replace retiring firefighters, signing up just 12 women along with 402 men. Those 12 began as a crowd of several hundred women who showed up at recruiting events, signed up online or attended pancake breakfasts hosted by firefighters.
But those hundreds vanished after the first physical hurdle — the Candidate Physical Ability Test, which involves wearing 75 pounds of protective clothing and gear while climbing and running. Just 12 hardy women attempted to make it through the months of training, but few survived. Five are struggling to endure rigorous, 17-week academies now in progress. Two are on city-paid injury leave. Five resigned or were terminated. None has become a full-fledged department employee — and if history is any guide, few of them will ever fight fires.
Mary was among them. She seemed a natural. She needed just eight minutes in 2006 to breeze through the Candidate Physical Ability Test — a test that stops most men right at the start. Yet Mary was shocked when real training began. "The first five minutes of work, we did 75 pushups, climbed up an aerial ladder, jumped off a sixth-floor roof, and then did more pushups." Alongside men also struggling, she pressed on. One guy was too fat, and failed. She was in top condition, yet "getting to the point I was endangering myself." She ended up near the bottom of her class, ahead of seven or eight men.
She can lift 80 pounds above her head. But she didn't realize she couldn't lift "80 pounds over and over again." The way she sees it, she simply was not big enough or muscular enough. The other two women in Mary's class also washed out. One couldn't pass the ladder-hauling tests. The third left because of an illness in her family.
Firefighters pull heavy lengths of hose, climb stairs while wielding giant power tools like chain saws, and lift 180-pound, 35-foot wooden ladders — akin to carrying a concrete lamppost. Firefighters' physicians say that a human expected to pull the heaviest hose lines must weigh at least 143 pounds. And that's just for starters. "Less than 10 percent body fat was not enough," says Mary, who purposely gained 15 pounds of muscle to achieve the bulk she needed.