By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
She's had it with firefighting, but Vesey has not. The former Air Force officer plans to rejoin the training academy — and that will cost her, and taxpayers, a lot. "I know now if I go to the tower [department jargon for the 17-week training], I should be prepared" for the unfamiliar equipment that stymied her the first time. She's strengthening her hand grip, which failed her several times, and is readying for the Los Angeles Marathon.
Recruiting has become a pricey endeavor, with taxpayers ponying up $82,692 to send a single recruit through the drill-tower academy — and spending another $82,692 each time a failed recruit is encouraged to try again.
"We have spent a lot of money on them," says Bruce Whidden, a public-information officer with the city's personnel department. "We don't want to throw them away. Our process for hiring is very expensive to the taxpayer. [The trainee has] been poked and prodded. We have spent a lot of hours on [them] — and money."
Pile onto those costs the pay for injured trainees who reap firefighter injury pay even if they have not made it to a real job. In a vast department with just 99 women — and that's counting a lot of desk jobs — there are many injuries. Currently, 16 women are on disability with work-related injuries.
Female firefighters are also lining up in record numbers to file lawsuits and claims, and getting big settlements and jury awards. Less than 3 percent of city firefighters, fire paramedics, fire administrators and fire investigators are women. Yet according to an audit by the city's personnel department in 2006, that tiny group accounted for 56 percent of the often multimillion-dollar lawsuits against the LAFD between 1996 and 2005.
Taxpayers stand to pay up to $10 million in recently decided and pending lawsuits and claims, including the $6.2 million awarded to black lesbian firefighter Brenda Lee, who said she was harassed and retaliated against. Lee's captain, Lewis Bressler, won $1.73 million after he claimed he was retaliated against for sticking up for her. In 2006, a female firefighter won a $320,000 settlement after she claimed that a captain grabbed her groin area. Another got $100,000 after she was injured trying to hoist the so-called "killer ladder." One of the most common threads in these claims is that the alleged maltreatment involves back-and-forth finger-pointing between women and men. And now, two more suits are on the horizon. (See "He Said, She Said.")
The feds — in a secretive investigation that some critics suggest has problems of its own — recently concluded that the Fire Department mistreated women and African-Americans. Captain Alicia Mathis — along with two other women — is pursuing a federal complaint, pushed by the Fire Department's new courtroom nemesis, attorney Genie Harrison, who represented Lee, Bressler, and Tennie Pierce, a firefighter infamous for being fed dog food during a prank.
Los Angeles Councilman Dennis Zine sees the suits as indicators of a poisoned department. "When people want to file a claim, they find some cause or issue and they fabricate," he says. "It is all about character [and] the attorneys who try to get settlements to fit their client."
Efforts to lure women started with great hope when the first L.A. woman firefighter was sworn in, in 1983. By the early '90s, women made up 5.4 percent of the department — although many were employed as paramedics, not firefighters actually working the fire line.
Then came a notorious video dubbed the "Female Follies" by the media. In it, a handful of women, including a perfume saleswoman from Macy's and an 18-year-old babysitter, were seen awkwardly struggling to climb over a 5-foot wall. The video was reportedly leaked to the media by a furious female captain and resulted in intense criticism of the male instructors who made it.
But almost nobody — including the media — asked whether the women could actually perform the drills. The Weekly has learned that the 25 women who were in training at the time of the "Female Follies" were given special pay for months by the city — unlike the men in that same class — to undergo extra preparation before facing the academy.
The extra training failed miserably — and the video, it turns out, did not exaggerate the women's problems. "The women were brought onboard and paid 65 percent of a firefighter's salary and paid to work out," says Captain Kevin Kearns, who taught at the academy. Yet in the end, "it was a complete failure."
The political flap over the imagery of flailing women — although it was an accurate representation — led to the forced retirement in 1995 of Fire Chief Manning. City Councilwoman Goldberg rode the controversy to full effect, claiming that the department was a "paramilitary" organization full of sexist white men. But there was virtually no discussion of whether women could handle, or even wanted, the work. In 1996, Bamattre was hired as chief by Mayor Richard Riordan, to try again. Bamattre hired far more minorities, but built the count of women to only about 83 — a number that included many paramedics who did not fight fires.
"The feminist movement made a heyday out of it," says Riordan about the post–"Female Follies" years. "That [videotape] is the type of thing that people love to find about their enemies, because it made the fire department look stupid."