Women Firefighters: The Gender Boondoggle
The fresh-looking rookie firefighters, decked out in black hats, pants and shirts, pose by a hook-and-ladder truck, smiling broadly at a crowd of graduation-day guests. Firefighters pass out Cokes and nachos, and young girls rush giggling past the drill tower — a six-story concrete replica of an apartment building — to check out the sweatshirts for sale by the Los Angeles Fire Department.
(Click to enlarge)
(Click to enlarge)
Hose envy: Hoisting heavy equipment gets the best of some trainees.
(Click to enlarge)
Wall of men: Three women hoped to graduate this day; all washed out.
With the national anthem booming, the celebration at Drill Academy 40 on Terminal Island takes on a circus quality. The huge fire-station door yawns open, revealing the rookies — now orderly and marching forth — trailed by theatrical "smoke." Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is a no-show, and so is Fire Chief Douglas Barry — off at a conference in Salt Lake City — so the grads are welcomed by Battalion Chief Emile Mack, who tells them the Los Angeles firefighter is an "American icon."
It is impossible not to notice that every one of the 42 rookies graduating on December 7 is male.
Three women were supposed to graduate. One was a 48-year-old grandmother — an emergency medical technician and former airport baggage handler who failed key physical tests just weeks into the fire-academy training. Another, a young former soccer player for Notre Dame, nearly made it through, but failed on drills to raise heavy wooden ladders against a building — as firefighters must do during a fire. The third was a tough former Air Force intelligence officer, terminated from the academy because she couldn't maintain the grueling pace.
What remains is a wall of men that typifies City Hall's two-decade effort, launched by long-departed city Fire Commissioner Ann Reiss Lane, and council members like Jackie Goldberg, who espoused the popular but untested view that fire departments should be 20 percent female. Women, it was widely held, were discriminatorily kept off the fire lines.
That sounded right. Women had been kept out of police work and were finally, in the 1990s, flooding into jobs as cops. Wasn't firefighting the same problem, with the same solution?
To prove its point, Los Angeles City Hall — just like Seattle, Miami, San Francisco, San Diego and other major cities, together with state governments — spent millions to recruit, train and house women. Los Angeles outfitted most of its 106 fire stations with costly women's lockers and women's showers, while politicians as well as fire chiefs Donald Manning and William Bamattre engaged in years of lip service, conjuring up an image of a new, professional class of woman firefighters.
Women came to figure prominently in the praise party on the LAFD's Web site, www.LAFD.org, where the Hero of the Month, for six months running — in a department of mostly men — has been Tamara Chick, a woman so key to the department's goals that she is now in charge of female recruitment.
There's just one problem, and it's a problem no fire chief, mayor or recruiter wants to admit. In a department of 3,940 people, the second largest municipal firefighting force in the U.S., the Weekly has learned that the women who work on the fire line could squeeze inside a Hummer limo.
Just 27 women are actually fighting Los Angeles fires.
The number is staggering in its shock value. In the 2006-2007 fiscal year, the department lured just four women — three of whom didn't make it. In this fiscal year, the Fire Department has managed to recruit eight women, two of whom have already washed out. Few of the eight will end up wearing the yellow helmet and jacket of a firefighter.
One of those who didn't make it was Angela Vesey, 33, a mother of two. As an Air Force intelligence officer, she worked with teams of all-male pilots in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia — and is not accustomed to failing around men. "I have no doubt in my mind," she says. "I am going to be a firefighter."
But not anytime soon. She was terminated by her trainers halfway through the 17-week academy and looks upon the LAFD's requirements as "much more difficult" than her military training.
Another casualty was "Mary" — an extremely fit runner who washed out long before her graduation day. Like many fire trainees, she suffered an injury that healed slowly and decided not to repeat the arduous training.
Mary agreed to talk to L.A. Weekly after much soul-searching, because she still hopes to land some kind of city job — and this highly competitive woman is still too embarrassed about what happened to her to go public.
What these two women saw — and experienced — is not what you might think.
Nobody tried to make either of them fail. No "old boys" got in their way. Mary was admired by her male boss and encouraged at each step to be a firefighter. "I was just too slow," she says. Firefighting equipment, like the one-man ladders, started "getting heavier," and she began to realize she wasn't strong enough to repeatedly lift it — a necessary skill. Eight weeks into the training — which causes plenty of men to wash out — Mary was stunned to realize that her body had begun "breaking down."
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.
(Click to enlarge)
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.
(Click to enlarge)
The abandoned womens 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.
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."
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."
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.
Moreover, two of the six women the department touts on its Web site as shining examples of City Hall's push to bring in women have actually filed gender-discrimination grievances against the LAFD. Captain Alicia Mathis and firefighter Elena Mattox wax poetic about their dedication to the department — yet Mathis is a particularly harsh critic of her employer. In 2006, she stood outside City Hall and told reporters that she had complained to the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing alleging gender discrimination, a hostile work environment, harassment and retaliation.
Mathis' wide-ranging claims typify the "he said, she said" daytime-TV feel of many of these disputes. She says she was pulled off the female-recruitment project, and retaliated against, after she testified about maltreatment to the mayor's political appointees on the Fire Commission, and was kissed against her will by a firefighter — whom she will not name.
She now works at a station near LAX. Handling her claim is attorney Harrison, who also represented Pierce, Lee and Bressler.
Recently, Harrison told the L.A.Times that she planned instead to file a federal-employment-commission claim on behalf of Mathis.
Another of Harrison's female clients is Mattox, an 18-year veteran firefighter who holds — once again — a key job in recruitment and helps to train firefighter candidates. Mattox and department spokeswoman Davies filed discrimination claims with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which then accused the department of violating civil rights laws by subjecting African-American and female firefighters to a "pattern and practice" of discrimination, harassment and retaliation.
That's a major allegation, and one that carries the weight of the feds.
But when the Weekly contacted an accused captain and two of the eyewitnesses to Mattox's alleged discrimination, it learned that the eyewitnesses and the captain were not contacted by EEOC investigators. As it turned out, the Los Angeles office of the EEOC, overseen by regional attorney Anna Park, had attacked the Fire Department without doing routine, investigative legwork.
Mattox claims that the captain ordered her to drill so hard that she had to get a hysterectomy. "The excessive drilling caused significant internal injuries for me," she alleged in her claim. According to her complaint, a captain at Fire Station 12, John Cappon, told a male rookie that he "got rid of another one today."
But one eyewitness, former firefighter Mark Wilhite, tells the Weekly that Cappon "overdrilled" the entire crew — not just Mattox — and that this was not unusual for Cappon. "It was an abuse of authority," says Wilhite. "[It was] excessive and it was downright inhumane" — but not as bad as Cappon's harsh drilling of the entire bunch a few days before, at which Mattox was not present.
Yet federal investigators did not interview Wilhite. They did, however, contact Captain Jerry Thomas — who tells the Weekly he wasn't even working that day and did not see what transpired. Thomas, now retired, is a vocal critic of the LAFD who stood up for Pierce when he sought $2.7 million from the city and claimed falsely that it was an all-white crew of firefighters that tricked him into eating dog food (the crew was multiracial, and a Latino pulled the prank).
The department tried to defuse the Mattox controversy by transferring Cappon. Furious, he sued, claiming he was punished as a result of trumped-up allegations by Mattox. An internal LAFD investigation failed to find that Cappon mistreated Mattox or singled her out as a woman.
Despite the grossly incomplete EEOC investigation, a lot is now at stake. If Villaraigosa and City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo refuse to settle with Mattox and Fire Department spokeswoman d'Lisa Davies, the EEOC could refer the case to the Department of Justice, which could sue or force the Fire Department into yet another "consent decree" — federal oversight in which city hiring and other practices are run, at least in part, by the feds.
"They recruit them, and then they beat them up," claims attorney Thomas Hoegh, who is handling at least two lawsuits against the Fire Department. "They encourage the women to join the department, then look what happens to them. They are all getting hurt badly."
Most of the injuries, he says, "are occurring during training activities. One wonders what is going on here. There is a double standard. They are encouraging them to join, then they do everything in their power to try to get rid of them."
But firefighter Julie Wolf — one of the rare women working on the fire line at a fire station in Los Angeles — has a different theory about what is causing the endless cycle of female hirings, washouts, injuries and lawsuits.
"Some of the women can't do the basics because of strength," says Wolf, a tough-talking engineer at Station 63. "Captains document it, and all of a sudden it is a 'hostile working environment' against the captain... I have never seen a woman overdrilled, and it has never happened to me."
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.
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."
Despite the cries of social engineers like Goldberg, Hudley-Hayes, Alarcon and Villaraigosa, there's no avoiding the fact that few women ultimately pursue these really tough jobs. Maybe the answer lies in those who have thrived, and those who have the heart to keep on trying.
Vesey, the former Air Force intelligence officer who fell too far behind but is upbeat about her chances next time, says that no firefighter "wants somebody who didn't meet the standards to be helping them out of a house... The [firefighters] you are with have to trust you."
Captain Debbie Brown, in the department's medical-liaison unit, adds, "The successful females are strong, and get along with people in general. I know there are those [women] who have issues — and there are others that seem to do just fine."
Whomever the 15-member City Council and Villaraigosa decide to blame next, the fact is that Los Angeles is not unique. Cities trying and failing to turn women into firefighters range from New York, with its less than 1 percent female crews, to San Francisco, with its 13.8 percent — a stat that seems impressive, but which is generously padded with paramedics who do not fight fires or live at firehouses.
Jon McDuffie, first vice president of the L.A. firefighters' union, says, "You can throw millions of dollars into this," but departments all over the country are struggling to recruit women. "We can't all be wrong."
Christine Pelisek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
More from LA Weekly on the Los Angeles Fire Department:
TENNIE PIERCE VERSUS TAXPAYERS, June 6, 2007
WORSE AND WORSER, July 3, 2007
PAYOUT FOR DOG FOOD PRANK?, September 10, 2007
TENNIE PIERCE GETS $1.43 MILLION, September 21, 2007
WHAT REALLY HAPPENED AT FIRE STATION 5?, March 14, 2007
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.