Forty-years after the hierarchy of the Los Angeles Fire Department and the union representing rank and file firefighters told the U.S. Dept. of Justice that requiring the department to hire Latinos, blacks and Asians would ruin one of the “most respected fire department in the world,” Mayor Eric Garcetti on Tuesday appointed the city’s first Latino fire chief.
Assistant Chief Ralph Terrazas, a 30-year veteran of the LAFD, was chosen after a months-long nationwide search for a person to lead a department with more than 3,200 sworn personnel and nearly 300 civilian employees.
Terrazas’ appointment comes as the department faces a number of tough issues, including allegations of nepotism in its recruitment and hiring practices at the same time it is struggling to hire more women and minority firefighters. In March, the mayor temporarily halted hiring until the department could put new recruitment and hiring procedures in place. Hiring resumed earlier this month.
Garcetti said Terrazas has not only tactical and administrative skills, but the talent to navigate “choppy political waters.”
The mayor said he is “looking to Chief Terrazas to be my field general in reforming the fire department to ensure that it is the best-managed and the most cutting-edge in the nation.”
Terrazas said the mayor’s desire to “restore” the fire department “sealed the deal” for him in terms of accepting the job.
“I want to fight with the mayor to reform the fire department,” he said.
If confirmed by the City Council, Terrazas, 54, would oversee a plan to revamp the way the department is managed; the development of FIRESTAT, which will use data to look at trends in emergency calls and determine how to deploy firefighters and reduce response times; and a new recruitment process being created in conjunction with Rand Corp.
Terrazas said he wanted to work to overhaul the department and restore its reputation, saying
the agency will be “technologically driven.”
“The challenges are significant, I understand that,” Terrazas said, adding that he plans to be with the department for the “long haul.”
Terrazas established the department’s Professional Standards Division, and the mayor said he was instrumental in securing the passage of Proposition F, a $532 million bond to finance the construction of 19 fire stations.
Pending approval from the council, Terrazas would likely take over as chief in August. His salary would be $292,424 a year, according to the mayor’s office.
Former Fire Chief Brian Cummings announced his retirement last October, several months after the mayor asked all city department heads to re-apply for their jobs.
Cummings, whose tenure was marred by questions about the department’s response times, had been with the department since February 1980 and was appointed chief in September 2011 by former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
James Featherstone, the general manager of the Emergency Management Department at the time, was named Cummings’ temporary replacement, and he was vying for the full-time LAFD post. Garcetti thanked Featherstone for his service, saying he stepped up when called upon. The mayor said he was now passing the baton to someone who can finish the improvements Featherstone started, with an emphasis on improving response times and diversity among the ranks.
Featherstone will return to the Emergency Management Department.
Frank Lima, president of United Firefighters of Los Angeles City, the union representing LAFD firefighters, noted that the union has sometimes disagreed with Terrazas on major policy issues. But he added, “We trust that he will now realize the critical importance of working hand-in-hand with our rank-and-file firefighters, paramedics, dispatchers and inspectors in the field in order for our department to rebuild and for him to be a successful fire chief.”
Lima said that over the past five years, the LAFD “has been decimated, having lost nearly 600 firefighters and paramedics to retirement and attrition while only recently hiring our first new class of 58 firefighters.”
He said it will be imperative for Terrazas to stand up and fight for rank-and- file LAFD members.
“If he does, he will be successful and we will stand with him every step of the way,” Lima said.