Women Firefighters: The Gender Boondoggle | News | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly

Women Firefighters: The Gender Boondoggle 

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

Wednesday, Jan 23 2008
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Wolf is growing tired of the recriminations — from women. "That is what we do. That is our job. All of a sudden it is humiliating and hostile for a member to perform their job? I don't understand that."

As a result, she says, "I think they are a bunch of crybabies. When I come to work, I am a firefighter first and a female second. I come to work and do my job."

To "dispel misconceptions" among women and demonstrate that anyone can become a firefighter — a stance that the department brass must by now realize is untrue — the Fire Department last March teamed up with the Cal State Northridge Department of Kinesiology to attract dozens of young women to apply for firefighter jobs.

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It was a fine weekend day, and the Fire Department spent $50,000 attracting women. And they indeed showed up in force, hundreds of them, eager to hoist ladders, carry a 60-pound pack up a steep hill and drag a 160-pound human dummy across a parking lot.

Of those hundreds, the numbers quickly dwindled: 122 contacted the department later to ask questions or start the process of joining up. Of those 122, just two were enrolled in the drill-tower training academy that started last December.

It's not that City Hall doesn't try. In August, women recruiters went to the Women in the Fire Service convention in Oakland in an attempt to woo female firefighters from other cities. They came back empty-handed.

In 2006, the department identified 1,700 potential female candidates, but just 2 percent applied. Those few were rushed through the application and written exam in half the time men face — the men get stuck in a holding pattern of 22 to 29 months.

And now, a new Web site is targeting such ongoing double standards. The site, lafdnonselected.org, is collecting stories of men — many of them highly qualified candidates or experienced firefighters from other cities — who have been rejected for unclear reasons.

"If you are a woman and you pass the CPAT [Candidate Physical Ability Test], you will blow through the system as fast as they can get you out the end," says LAFD Captain Kevin Kearns, who teaches at the Oxnard Fire Academy, and who launched the site this month. "The number-one ticket right now is a woman."

At December's Los Angeles City Fire Commission meeting, held at City Hall East downtown, Fire Commissioner Genethia Hudley-Hayes, a political appointee of Villaraigosa's and a former Los Angeles Unified School Board member, asked why, after a $500,000 recruitment campaign in 2007, the department hired only eight women.

"Someone in City Council is going to ask, 'Why do we only have eight women?'" Hayes said to a red-faced Deputy Chief Fox. "The bottom line is, these numbers aren't good." Added Fire Commissioner Jill Furillo, "I don't think any of us are happy with the numbers we see."

To these political types, the only problem is the numbers, not the gender boondoggle unfolding without any apparent understanding by Villaraigosa or the Los Angeles City Council.

Can this be fixed, on any level?

In late 2006, council members and City Controller Chick called for — and got — the resignation of Bamattre over the Pierce case. Bamattre was blamed for miserably failing to change the culture of the department. But as Bamattre notes, when he left, the LAFD had "more women than many large departments. We did that without a consent decree [or] mandatory hiring." Chief Douglas Barry was chosen by Villaraigosa to diversify the department — and, yes, to recruit more women.

On that last count, Barry will almost certainly fail.

His initial response has been to actually toughen up the training. He developed a professional-standards division with civilian oversight, and set up an automated complaint and disciplinary system. The City Council recently approved funds to hire an inspector general who will be charged with making sure discipline is doled out properly.

Meanwhile, Laura Chick plans to audit the department — again. Her 2006 audit raised eyebrows with troubling stats purporting to show that 80 percent of women in the Fire Department felt they had been sexually harassed or knew of someone who had been. The media ran with that story. But nobody knew if it was accurate, since only a tiny percentage of all firefighters had bothered to respond — and Bamattre strongly implies that Chick surveyed a lopsided number of disgruntled workers, charging that "it was hypocritical for her to take the position that she took."

One day in January, Mary sent an e-mail to the Weekly. She was worried that this article was going to "criticize the Fire Department." She wanted it made clear that she had a "fantastic time" in the training academy. "It was challenging, exhausting, exhilarating, and fun. I lament that my body was not strong enough to successfully complete the training and that I doubt it ever will be. The staff at the training academy was very professional and I never felt a sexual bias whatsoever."

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