Bright and early on Saturday morning, young men and women dressed in collared shirts and slacks streamed into the L.A. Fire Department's training academy in Elysian Park to learn what it takes to be a firefighter.
Almost all of the approximately 80 people in attendance are black – a turnout the department was hoping for.
“I want to make sure our department represents the communities we serve,” said Fire Chief Brian Cummings as he addressed the room at the Frank Hotchkin Memorial Training Center.
This informational session is part of a minority recruitment effort by the LAFD to increase the diversity of their work force. They’re aiming to hire 350 new firefighters over the next two years, and hope an increasing number of those recruits will be black, Latino, Asian or female.
Of the 3,306 firefighters in the LAFD, more than 47 percent are white, 31 percent are Latino and about 11 percent are black. About 3 percent of the firefighters are female.
“Diversity in the fire service is a national issue that all departments throughout the nation are trying to improve and increase their diversity within the work force,” said Steve Hissong, an LAFD Battalion Chief who's been with the department for 26 years.
Matt Jones, 35, came to Saturday’s seminar because he wants to be a firefighter, and because he's aiming to be as prepared as possible for the written exam and the hiring process. Jones said he would have applied when he was 18, but life got in the way.
“Firefighters are paid good guys. They’re incentivized to stay in shape. They’re incentivized to do the right thing,” he said. “Unless you’re going to play for the Dodgers, I mean what else would you want to do?”
Lamorris Wilcher from the LAFD's recruitment unit said the department creates specific information sessions that cater to different minority groups.
"Each culture has unique situations that I may not be able to relate to, but there's somebody on this fire department that can relate to that," said Wilcher.
In addition to events focused on Latino, Asian and black applicants, the department focuses on another demographic group: women.
Wilcher said that while women do great on the written exam and interview, they often have difficulty with the Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT) – which includes walking on a Stairmaster wearing 75 pounds worth of weights. Classes aimed specifically at women include tips and techniques for passing the physical portion of the test.
Wilcher said for the fire department, diversity can have a lot of different meanings.
“When we talk about diversity, it's not just the color of their skin. It's not their ethnicity. It's what they bring to the table," he said. "Athletes, veterans and things of that nature.”
Jones said he's grateful that the department offers seminars specifically for the black community.
“If I were to walk into a room and everybody was a 50-year-old female redhead and I’m a 22-year-old blonde, I might feel intimidated,” he said. “If there’s something that makes me feel included, I think that’s important.”
The LAFD's next written exam is March. Exams typically take place at the Los Angeles Convention Center to accommodate the thousands of expected applicants. But only a few hundred will make it through to the fire academy.
As it works to diversify its ranks, the fire department continues to emphasize the seriousness of the profession.
“This isn’t just a job; it’s a career,” Hissong told attendees at the weekend's seminar. He added that being a firefighter not only affects you emotionally, mentally and physically but it will effects your family as well.
From the start of the session, LAFD officials emphasized the need for applicants to carry themsleves as professionals, emphasizing the importance of being on time and well-dressed.
"This is not just a career that you go work a 9 to 5," said Wilcher. "This is a career where you can go to work one day and not come home the next."
Two more LAFD general recruitment sessions are scheduled for November 3 and November 17. There are two classes on each day that last approximately two hours. To RSVP or for more information see the LAFD's recruiting website.