A city audit released this week faults the Los Angeles Fire Department for its disciplinary process, which, the report says, has allowed cultural and racial tensions to persist.
Department officials say they embrace the new report and acknowledge changes need to be made to their disciplinary process. But the report says the problems mirror repeated complaints in the department going back to audits from 1994.
Genethia Hudley-Hayes, the president of the civilian board of Fire Commissioners that oversees the department, advocates for more cooperation from the fire department in implementing stricter disciplinary policies.
“What is troubling to me is that there seems to be, within the department, the inability to in fact deal in a very open and transparent way,” Genethia Hudley-Hayes told KPCC's Patt Morrison.
She said there had already been several occasions on which the commission had suggested more stringent disciplinary guidelines, but after the meet and confer process, the department heavily “watered down” the guidelines.
“In the instances of hazing, harassing, DUI’s, the very kinds of things that will cost this city money with regards to law suits — those are the guidelines that have been softened," she said. "That is the very crux of the culture and the climate that we are trying to change within the fire department.”
While Hudley-Hayes and the commission push for a zero-tolerance policy against racially charged actions, Pat McOsker, President of the United Fire Fighters of Los Angeles, says incidents need to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
“I don’t support firing a firefighter for each and every instance. The punishment should fit the crime,” McOsker said. “It’s ridiculous to say that some particular category, without taking into account any of the mitigating factors, that every time a person gets fired because 'X' happened — that’s not fair.”
McOsker did indicate that the union and most firefighters agreed there needed to be changes made, but they should not be left out of the discussion process as he feels they have been thus far.
“Nobody has a greater interest in a workplace where you’re respected and treated fairly than rank and file firefighters themselves,” he said. “That’s why we’re so supportive of overhauling our disciplinary system and making sure in the end that we have a fair system.”
One of the “cultural” problems McOsker said he sees in the department deals with hierarchy among firefighters.
“When you have that, it tolerates people being rough with one another, and that’s some of the problems that you see,” he said.
Hudley-Hayes said she and the commission are looking to rid the department of such “cultural” practices that promote and allow racial hazings or harassment. She also pointed out that fire fighters are generally very trusted officials.
“These are people that we expect to go into homes under the most critical crisis kinds of things that can happen in people’s lives. You would want to have those people held to the highest standard when it comes to discrimination, when it comes to language use, when it comes to sensitivity,” she said.
“If you’re not able to do that to your fellow firefighters in the station, how does the public then believe that you can go into the many disparate communities covered by the Los Angeles Fire Department and act in the way that we anticipate you will be acting?”