By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Goldberg called for a force that was 15-20 percent female — a level that existed in no major cities — and was quick to blame "deputy chiefs" for keeping women out.
"That was the only time we had made progress," says Goldberg. "Somebody with power has to stay on top of it. If they don't, it will always revert back." She charges that Bamattre "did a little at the beginning, but at the end he didn't want to fight the deputy chiefs around him."
In fact, some firefighters say Bamattre quietly rolled back strict physical requirements, just like Manning, implementing a secret "no fail" policy to pass women who plainly could not heft chain saws up ladders or run with heavy hoses, or who had other physical deficiencies. In the almost entirely male yet multiracial force, firefighters were furious that academy rejects were getting through, and many questioned whether Bamattre was jeopardizing firefighters and the public.
Bamattre says that charge is just plain untrue, telling the Weekly: "The physical standards have never been lowered to bring in women." He says the standards in fact were and are being raised, and that creating a double standard "is not something I ever would have stood for." (LAFD Battalion Chief Richard Rideout refused to discuss whether there was a no-fail policy for women, adding cryptically, "It doesn't happen anymore. Everything was revamped" when Chief Barry took over.)
But for years, nobody questioned the underlying assumptions pushed by the City Council and the city Fire Commission: that women wanted to be firefighters, that women were kept out, and that women had special skills needed on fire lines, just as female cops brought special skills to their jobs. If Bamattre was jettisoning standards and practicing the equivalent of grade inflation in order to slip women into fire stations, the thinking was that the ends justified the means.
"It is a political-correctness issue, more than one [that asks] whether it makes good sense or not," says Riordan, chatting by phone during a ski trip to Whistler Mountain in British Columbia. "But that is a fact of life."
Then, in 2005, City Controller Laura Chick alleged in an audit that Bamattre was engaged in a rollback of physical requirements. In the audit, motivated in part by the Pierce dog-food debacle and a hazing incident in 2003 known as Ratgate, Chick found that Bamattre had overruled the drillmaster's recommendations in nine of 30 cases of female recruits who failed one or more tests. Only two of the nine women in Chick's audit, despite tremendous investment by the LAFD and by the women themselves, got through their probationary year.
But Bamattre, a calm and almost laid-back guy, lashes out at Chick and her controversial audit findings, saying he in fact toughened the standards for everyone — and that Chick, as former chairwoman of the Los Angeles City Council's Public Safety Committee, was more than aware of this fact but used her audit to publicly attack him anyway. Recalls Bamattre: "I went to Laura and said, 'This is a terrible audit, objectively and statistically.'"
Bamattre did, however, order that an extra pulley be added to the 35-foot ladders, to make it easier to extend a ladder against a building to gain access to roofs or upper floors. "It gives a huge mechanical advantage, so you are pulling less than half of what the ladder weighs," says Captain Frank Lima. But the pulley, widely perceived as a special assist for women, left the men bugged about all the excess rope that "people can trip over." Bamattre acknowledges the controversy but says he told critics inside the department, "Isn't it easier for men to pull the pulley [too]?"
Then last May, a former drillmaster at the Frank Hotchkins Memorial Training Center testified in Superior Court that he had been ordered by two high-ranking chiefs to pass women, and had stood up to their double standard. "I recommended termination on 95 percent of the women that could not throw that ladder," testified Captain Scott Campos, now at Fire Station 5. "And in all cases, it was overlooked — and they were sent to the field."
Bamattre's alleged lowering of standards "put people out in the field that weren't qualified," says Lima, who won a $3.75 million judgment after he claimed his superiors retaliated against him — for making life as tough for women firefighters as he did for the men.
Lima requested a Board of Rights hearing to clear his name after being charged with jeopardizing the safety of Melissa Kelley, who claimed she was refused help when she dropped a ladder on herself. After the Kelley dustup, then Deputy Chief Andrew Fox ordered an increase from two to three in the number of firefighters who carry the 35-foot wooden ladder at fires. When Lima struck back in a lawsuit of his own, the bitterness roiling the department turned against Kelley — herself a former instructor — who was now accused of being the bully.
"She called all of us 'fuckers' and 'pieces of shit'!" alleged one recruit, according to court papers. "I feel firefighter Kelley singled me out and degraded me in front of others," claimed another. Lima told the Weekly, "It is hard to go in a fire with someone when you know from drilling she can't lift the ladder... If you can't do it in a perfect environment in a drill tower or academy, there is no way you can do it in a life-threatening situation."
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