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LA fire chief reviews nepotism accusations for department under scrutiny

Interim Fire Chief Jim Featherstone says he's committed to reforming the department, from recruitment to response times to accountability.
Interim Fire Chief Jim Featherstone says he's committed to reforming the department, from recruitment to response times to accountability.
Alice Walton/KPCC

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Nepotism may not have played a role in the recruitment of firefighters, but having the appearance of favoritism may have been just as bad, the head of the Los Angeles Fire Department told reporters Tuesday.

The Los Angeles Times recently found that when the LAFD hired its first class of recruits in five years, 20 percent of the men were the sons or nephews of city firefighters. Interim Chief Jim Featherstone said he hasn’t found that department brass did anything wrong, but acknowledged the statistics shook public confidence in the department.

“We will always have relatives, friends and associates who are part of the greater public safety family," Featherstone said. "What we need to do though is make sure the opportunity exists for all people to become Los Angeles city firefighters.”

The chief moved two commanders who had overseen the selection process to other duties after he found their sons had made it through recruitment. 

"I wanted to avoid the appearance [of favoritism]," Featherstone said. "If there's the slightest appearance, I don't want the question even raised." 

Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office launched an official investigation into the recruitment process Tuesday morning.  The Fire Commission, a panel appointed by the mayor, also requested the city's Personnel Department report on its role in the recruitment and selection process.

Other problems with the selection process included eliminating thousands of qualified applicants who did not turn in paperwork in a 60-second window. Applicants were not told they would be eliminated from the process if they turned in papers outside of that window. 

"I've brought in a new chief, appointed a new commission and now launched this investigation to make sure we reform the department and lower response times," Garcetti said. "This problem may have been caused before I took office, but as mayor, I'm going to fix it."

The investigation comes one day after an independent report found the leadership and management structures of the department need to be changed if the LAFD wants to improve the way it responds to fires and medical calls. The interim chief said he’s already working on some of those recommendations, including breaking up the city into smaller bureaus that would have more oversight, and hiring a chief technology officer. 

“I’m not a placeholder,"Featherstone said. "I’ve been put here to do a job and from day one, which was the LAX shooting, I’ve acted as if I am the fire chief of the Los Angeles Fire Department."  

The mayor's office is conducting a national search for a permanent fire chief. The next recruitment classes will start in June and October.