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Mayor Names LA’s First Latino Fire Chief

By Ben Welsh and Robert J. Lopez, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has named the first Latino to lead the city’s Fire Department as it struggles with an onslaught of criticism over staff reductions, lagging response times, slow progress in hiring women, and minorities and outdated technology.

The choice of Assistant Chief Ralph M. Terrazas, a Los Angeles native who was raised in Wilmington and lives in San Pedro, was announced Tuesday by Garcetti after a nationwide search for a replacement for former Chief Brian Cummings, who resigned under pressure last fall as the agency’s troubles multiplied.

“I want to fight, with the mayor, to reform the Fire Department,” Terrazas said after being introduced at a City Hall news conference.

Garcetti said the 54-year-old Terrazas would be the first Latino chief in the department’s 128-year history and “the best of insider and outsider” to lead the agency forward. Terrazas’ appointment must be approved by the City Council, which the mayor said he expects to happen in August.

Minutes after Terrazas’ selection was announced, the city’s influential firefighters union released a statement congratulating him, but also warning that rank-and-file members will resist a series of changes being discussed for the LAFD, some of which have been supported by the mayor and previous fire chiefs.

Terrazas worked his way up through the department over the last 30 years and recently was a top chief overseeing dozens of firehouses serving the southern section of the city.

He also helped establish and lead the LAFD’s Professional Standards Division, created six years ago to reform a troubled discipline system roiled by discrimination and bias complaints that led to millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded legal payouts.

If confirmed, Terrazas will be paid $292,000 annually and take charge at a crucial juncture for the LAFD, which has more than 3,200 sworn members and has been buffeted by a series of recent controversies and deep, recession-driven budget cuts.

Earlier this year, the department was forced to overhaul how it hires firefighters amid concerns about nepotism and a failure to recruit significant numbers of women and minorities. The agency has also been struggling to upgrade its aging technology and create a unit to analyze response time and other operational data. The unit was approved after Cummings and other top fire officials admitted to misstating how fast rescuers get to victims during emergencies.

Cummings announced his retirement in October, three months after the inauguration of Garcetti, who made improving the LAFD a cornerstone of his successful campaign last year.

Terrazas has been a member of Los Bomberos, an organization that has represented Latino firefighters in the department.

Another top candidate for the job, Interim Chief James G. Featherstone, took temporary command of the department in November. Garcetti thanked Featherstone for his service, but added that Terrazas had the best combination of experience in the field and in managing complex administrative tasks. Terrazas has a master’s degree in public administration from California State University, Los Angeles, according to his online resume posted at LinkedIn.

Recent LAFD chiefs have had short tenures, with three moving in and out of the office in the last eight years. Terrazas would be the 18th person to serve as chief of the LAFD.

Jacqueline Zarate, president of the association of Latino city employees, recalled working with Terrazas during functions planned with Los Bomberos. “He’ll do a great job,” she said. “He’s going to look at what’s best for the needs of the entire city and not just Latinos.”

Photo via WikiCommons

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LA Mayor Suspends City’s Firefighter Recruitment Program

By Robert J. Lopez and Ben Welsh, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti suspended the city’s firefighter recruitment program Thursday amid concerns about mismanagement and nepotism, including new emails that show special recruitment workshops were organized for relatives of department insiders.

“I have determined that the Fire Department’s recruiting process is fatally flawed,” the mayor said in a statement Thursday.

The action follows a Los Angeles Times report last month that thousands of candidates who passed a written test were excluded from consideration for a new training class because some of their paperwork wasn’t received in the first 60 seconds of a filing period last spring. Nearly 25 percent of the 70 recruits eventually hired were related to LAFD firefighters.

Internal LAFD emails newly obtained by the Times show dozens of department officials were alerted last year that the paperwork, certifying that candidates had passed a physical fitness test, needed to arrive at the city in the first minutes of the filing period if applicants were to have a chance.

Another email discusses a coaching session for relatives of firefighters that was held at a city fire station. The captain who wrote the emails is the focus of a disciplinary investigation. He told the Times he also gave workshops to people not connected to the LAFD.

As part of Thursday’s announcement, Garcetti said a new training class scheduled to begin later this year has been canceled. He also said Santa Monica-based Rand Corp. was being retained to conduct a thorough review of LAFD recruitment and hiring practices.

The screening process used for the first new class of LAFD recruits in five years has been criticized as arbitrary and unfair by unsuccessful candidates, City Council members and Interim Fire Chief James G. Featherstone. Critics say qualified applicants, including some with paramedic and firefighting experience, were passed over merely because they failed to meet the unannounced one-minute cutoff.

Officials say the class, which is 60 percent white and has just one woman, failed to increase diversity at an agency that has struggled to overcome a legacy of discrimination and bias complaints that have cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in legal payouts. Garcetti has said the department needs to move more rapidly toward a decades-long goal of reflecting the population of city, which is 29 percent white.

The mayor’s suspension of hiring was criticized by Capt. Frank Lima, president of the union representing rank-and-file LAFD members.

“We’re very upset and we’re very disappointed with the decision,” he said, adding that the move would exacerbate firefighter staffing shortages. He called the internal investigation and the mayor’s decision to suspend hiring “crazy” and “political.”

The Fire Department declined to comment on the investigation. But documents obtained by the Times show the probe is focused on Capt. Johnny L. Green, a 24-year veteran who has been active in community organizations and mentored youths and new recruits for years.

Records show that the LAFD investigation was launched March 11, several days after Green spoke to the Times about his view of flaws in the hiring process.

Green declined to comment Thursday, citing the internal probe. But in the previous interview, he said he held at least four workshops, three of which were attended by members of the community. “That’s what I do,” Green said. “I help the community.”

During the latest round of hiring, he said he gave workshops to about 75 applicants, including a few dozen LAFD relatives and friends. The workshops focused on interview skills and resume writing. Other department members assisted by participating in mock interview panels, Green said.

He also sent an email, forwarded by a department secretary to dozens of Fire Department members, announcing he would lead workshops at a West L.A. fire station for “LAFD cadets and family members of the LAFD only” to prepare candidates for in-person interviews. One Green email to LAFD members urged recipients to inform applicants they must submit proof they had passed the physical fitness exam to the city Personnel Department as quickly as possible after the filing window opened at 8 a.m. April 22.

“Don’t delay, they have to be ready to go. NO exceptions!!!!!!” he wrote on April 19. He also wrote that they expected to meet their quota of several hundred applicants within two minutes.

After a deluge of submissions on April 22, personnel officials quietly decided to extend interview invitations only to 965 applicants deemed to have submitted their paperwork electronically or in person before 8:01 a.m. Personnel officials have acknowledged they did not inform the public that such a cutoff would be used.

Los Angeles Fire Department via Vlickr