For decades, the Los Angeles Fire Department has tried and failed to recruit women as firefighters, coming under intense political pressure from elected officials and women’s groups who said women were being kept off the fire lines.
As L.A. Weekly reported in “Women Firefighters: The Gender Boondoggle,” in January, the effort has been an abysmal failure, soaking up taxpayer funds even as extensive training and recruiting programs continually showed that few women wanted the jobs, and few of those who wanted to fight fires could pass the physical tests.
In fiscal year 2006-2007, the LAFD lured only four women, leaving the city’s force of 3,923 firemen with just 27 women who actually fight fires — and that didn’t even make Los Angeles the nation’s least successful city in recruiting women firefighters.
Yet, as we reported, the problems go far deeper than pouring huge sums into recruiting that turned up just four women during that year. Of those four women, at the end of 18 brutal weeks of drill-tower training, three who had tried their hardest didn’t make it.
For years, political leaders refused to accept what the data repeatedly show: Few women are large enough, or beefy enough, to haul massive hoses up stairs and move massive ladders against buildings, while wearing 70 pounds of protective clothing and gear. Critics alleged that under pressure to make L.A. look good, Fire Chief William Bamattre, who was forced to resign over the Tennie Pierce dog-food prank, rolled back the strict physical requirements, implementing a secret “no fail” policy to pass women who would have plainly failed the training rigors.
Not to be deterred from its politically driven push, the city has spent millions of dollars outfitting its 106 fire stations with costly women’s locker rooms and showers, most of which stand empty. Instead, many female firefighters who make it past the drill-tower academy have lined up in record numbers to file lawsuits and claims, getting big settlements and jury awards.
Less than 3 three percent of city firefighters, fire paramedics, fire administrators and fire investigators are women, but a city audit in 2006 showed that this tiny group accounted for 56 percent of lawsuits filed from 1996 to 2005. In a secret investigation, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission concluded that LAFD mistreated women and African-Americans, but the Weekly discovered that the federal commission appeared to be politically driven, failing even to interview witnesses — other than those who complained.
By press time, the lone female recruiter hired to bring women into LAFD had been promoted, and no one has filled her spot. Usually, the female locker rooms sit eerily empty, and men sometimes use the spaces to study. The most recent lawsuit payout went to firefighter John Cappon, who accepted a settlement in November for $700,000 — the bill paid by taxpayers for the damages Cappon said he suffered in being transferred, as punishment for allegedly ordering a female firefighter to work too hard. That female firefighter had claimed that the rigorous work Cappon ordered her to do made her sick and caused her to have a hysterectomy.
Chief Douglas Barry was chosen by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to diversify the department and, yes, spend time and resources in another bid to find women who want to, and are able to, fight fires. In 2008, the department brought in six women. And that in itself is a miracle.
From “Women Firefighters: The Gender Boondoggle” by Christine Pelisek
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 realized 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 that her body had begun “breaking down.”