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
Lima and other firefighters are still livid, saying requiring three people to lift a ladder wastes manpower during fires — in order to help very few women. "It basically took a third member, handcuffed them, and delayed other vital operations on the ground, like forcible entry, shutting off utilities and shutting off gas," says Lima. "They are kind of little things, but they are big things. Why go out and drill with this 35 [-foot ladder]? It is a valuable tool, but no one wants the [internal] repercussions if someone can't do it."
One captain who didn't want to be identified tells the Weekly that most of the men ignore the order from Fox, who was later demoted in the brouhaha over Pierce and the dog-food prank. Two men, not three, are raising the ladders — but that modest act of defiance eats away at the once-famed authority of department brass, left to muddle through a political mess they can't seem to quell.
The human costs are embodied in Mary, who applied online after she heard from a family member, who is a firefighter, that the department was hiring women.
She thought she'd be a perfect candidate. The 34-year-old mother of three was physically fit, didn't want a 9-to-5 job — and considered herself a tomboy who always got along with men. After easily passing the Candidate Physical Ability Test, she trained full time, pumping weights and jogging, bulking up to 145 pounds on her 5-foot-5-inch frame.
She was hired within the year, and a month or so later she started the 17-week drill-tower academy along with two other, equally rare women who passed the Candidate Physical Ability Test.
That's when Mary hit the wall. Four times, she failed a life-preserving test that required her to put on her breathing gear in less than 60 seconds — crucial to both her safety and that of others during a smoke-filled fire. "I was surprised I wasn't doing well," she recalls. "This isn't rocket science."
Like so many women — as well as men — she eventually got hurt and took paid injury leave (officially, trainees are part of the department and are paid to complete the training). "The drillmaster said, 'I admire you, but I see your body breaking down,'" she recalls.
Vesey, whose experiences mirror Mary's, had chosen a career in the Fire Department because she wanted to help people "at their worst." Taking the written test, she was one of just two women among about 100 men — and was certain she would do fine.
"I was running in the morning and lifting weights at night," she says. Although she saw big, brawny men failing because they lacked endurance, "I thought with my brute strength I could get through it." Instead, Vesey quickly fell behind.
Persistent allegations from politicians like Alarcon and Goldberg that women recruits are being repressed, kept out and treated unfairly by a bunch of knuckle-draggers leave her cold. Vesey says, "I felt it was totally fair. The last thing I wanted was for someone to give me a freebie because I am a woman."
Similarly, Mary says, "Everyone was treated the same" at the training academy. "I thought they were extraordinarily fair. If I was watching me, I would have rolled my eyes. It was Private Benjamin-like antics. They never lost their professionalism... I was disappointed I couldn't do it."
Today, a small core of women thrive in the nearly all-male department, echoing the stories told by Mary and Vesey. Captain Linda Hughes, who joined in 1997, still remembers the "great camaraderie" she experienced training alongside male recruits. "I was the only girl in the class," she says. "It was probably the most physically challenging thing I had ever done."
Fire Department brass are so desperate to keep City Hall off their backs that they tend to place the few women they do have squarely in the public eye — for example, as a semipermanent Hero of the Month, a recruiter of other women or a key spokeswoman to the media. This has led the department again and again to publicly peddle individual women who are, at the same time, going after the department or its management in claims and lawsuits.
Tamara Chick, who now holds a key job as the lead recruiter of female firefighters, in 2005, as a newly promoted captain, alleged unprofessional conduct by her superior captain after he implied she could be transferred to an unpopular job and also made fun of her difficulty using a computer. Chick has been listed as Hero of the Month on the LAFD Web site for several months now. A firehouse rumor has persisted that she is the niece of City Controller Laura Chick, a vocal critic of the department. In fact, the two women are not related. Meanwhile, the department continues to tout Tamara Chick month after month as its top employee — while a sea of thousands of worthy firemen get no such honor.
Equally curious is the department's strained relationship with d'Lisa Davies, a black firefighter who, the Weekly has learned, filed a federal discrimination complaint against the LAFD and is seeking an undisclosed settlement sum from the city. Yet Davies is one of the most visible public personas of the department, chosen by department brass as a lead spokesperson and regularly quoted in the local and national media with regard to fires that break out in L.A.