Mayor: Increasing LAFD diversity won’t threaten quality of recruits

A Los Angeles Fire Department engine.
A Los Angeles Fire Department engine. Courtesy Los Angeles Fire Department

More than 97 percent of the Los Angeles Fire Department is male. Nearly half is white. The current class of recruits includes four women out of 43 firefighter hopefuls. The last class had just one woman. She resigned before graduating.

A new study of the department's practices by the Rand Corporation's consulting group says the department needs to overhaul its recruiting process if it is to make headway toward diversifying the department.

The 150-page report suggests launching a citywide outreach campaign that targets female athletes and minority valedictorians at local high schools for recruitment. It also suggests adding a background check on applicants before using the lottery to narrow the field.  

The report was met with different degrees of enthusiasm at City Hall.

A spokesman for Mayor Eric Garcetti said his boss would not lower standards to achieve diversity.

“We are never going to reduce qualifications,” Garcetti spokesman Yusef Robb said. At the same time, he said the mayor believes its time to take another look at what it takes to become a member of one of the most elite fire departments in the nation.

“It means reassessing the qualifications that we have for people wanting to join the fire department,” Robb said. 

Fire chief Ralph Terrazas was also circumspect in his response to the report.

"I look forward to reviewing this report and working with the mayor's office and personnel as we continue to refine the hiring process to employ a diverse field of qualified candidates as LAFD firefighters," the chief said in a statement.

The department already has instituted changes in its recruiting process after Garcetti suspended hiring last year amid reports of nepotism and a lack of diversity. 

Starting last year, the LAFD began using a lottery to choose which applicants among 10,000 would be allowed to take the department’s written test. Thousands of people apply each year – too many for the city to test.

LAFD spokesman Peter Sanders said the chief already has looked into working with high schools.

“He has met with LAUSD officials to develop a magnet program within LAUSD that focuses on the fire service to develop candidates beginning at the high school level,” Sanders said.

Chief Terrazas also has asked the city council for money to hire more recruit staff, Sanders said.

But Rand was critical of the current recruitment process.

“While many aspects of the department’s selection process are consistent with best practice in personnel selection, there still are elements that can be improved,” said Chaitra Hardison, lead author of the report and a senior behavioral scientist at RAND. “Some of our suggested changes are intended to reduce processing time and costs to both the city and applicants.

“In addition, the city needs to engage in a long-term evaluation to demonstrate that its hiring criteria accurately predict who will be a high-performing firefighter in the future,” she said in a statement. “Additional effort also is needed to look for alternative selection criteria that may do a better job of predicting future job performance.”

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