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Firefighters critical of LAFD leadership, discipline process

An overwhelming number of Los Angeles Fire Department firefighters lack trust in their leaders, while many are frustrated with perceived inconsistencies in how top brass discipline sworn members, according to a new survey reviewed Friday by The Times.

The survey of LAFD’s workplace culture also found that 56% of sworn female employees who responded cited bullying and harassment as sources of conflict at the department — compared with 19% of sworn males and 26% of civilian women. Also, 41% of Black and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islanders said bullying and harassment are issues.

The assessment had been highly anticipated after several critical news stories about the department and calls from some LAFD groups for a federal investigation and the resignation of Chief Ralph Terrazas.

Kris Larson, president of the Los Angeles Women in the Fire Service, said the survey’s findings are consistent with what the group’s members have said for months.

“With 70% of sworn respondents reporting an unfavorable view of management, the abject failure of leadership starting with the fire chief is confirmed,” Larson said. “Clearly, the membership has spoken. It’s time for the fire chief to step down.”

Terrazas said that creating an “equitable and inclusive work environment” is his top priority.

“There are some encouraging results in this report,” Terrazas said in a statement. “And I think that’s a testament to the character of our firefighters and their dedication to keeping Angelenos safe every day. At the same time, it’s clear we have a lot more work to do, and I will always be committed to pushing that work forward. “

The survey, done by Deloitte, queried more than 1,200 employees at the LAFD, which has a total workforce of more than 3,600.

The vast majority of respondents reported that the work that they do is “meaningful” and that they have a positive working relationship with their manager. Many also agreed that they enjoy working with their respective teams.

Employees also gave high marks when it came to “strong personal connections” made in the department.

“What keeps me at LAFD is the people,” one respondent told researchers. “Overall, they’re friendly, willing to help one another, understanding, and respectful.”

Responses were negative on the issue of the department’s leadership and discipline. “Less than half of LAFD believe there is a fair, inclusive and diverse work environment,” the researchers said.

The report found that “members felt that discipline is especially inconsistent for those in higher ranks. Many referenced this as eroding their trust in leadership.”

“In interviews and focus groups, sworn members shared that low morale is partly because they do not understand the basis for decisions and perceived lack of equitable discipline,” researchers said.

The report signaled the challenges the department faces from younger employees. “Qualitative data suggested that the new generation of employees have different expectations of work-life balance,” according to researchers.

Only 9% of those born after 1995 responded favorably on the topic of the department being a “humanistic workplace,” the report found. At the same time, new sworn members “provided positive feedback on learning programs in the academy and probationary period,” the report said.

Just 28% of sworn firefighters responded favorably when asked about trust in the LAFD’s leadership. And 81% of sworn respondents selected “heavy workloads/inadequate resources” when asked about sources of conflict.

Data suggest that “inclusion is not widely felt across the organization,” the report found. “Qualitative data from interviews and focus groups also noted the perception of discriminatory, hostile, and unprofessional work environments for members.”

A Times investigation in July showed the agency’s leaders failed to take prompt action against a high-ranking white officer who was reported to be under the influence on duty.

Another Times report examined complaints that Mayor Eric Garcetti has failed to keep his promises to significantly expand the ranks of female firefighters and overhaul a department in which women and nonwhite firefighters tell of feeling bullied.

Garcetti, in a statement, said that the “Fire Department must be a place where everybody feels safe and supported, and where no one has to fear bullying or discrimination of any kind.”

“We know we have a lot of work to do to get there, and the findings of this report affirm that fact,” Garcetti said. He said there would “aggressive steps on the path toward equity” in the coming weeks.

Freddy Escobar, president of United Firefighters of Los Angeles City, the union representing LAFD firefighters, said the report confirms the department’s staffing and workload issues.

“Our staffing issues must be addressed,” Escobar said of the survey. “It also reveals completely unacceptable levels of harassment and bullying in the workplace. UFLAC has zero tolerance for this behavior and we believe that anybody in the LAFD who commits these acts should be held accountable.”

Leaders of Los Bomberos, which represents Latino firefighters, were still reviewing the report and did not provide comment. The Stentorians, which represents African American firefighters, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The assessment has been years in the making. The funding for the study was originally included in the mayor’s budget in 2018, but then left out of the final version.

The money bounced in and out of the budget several times, most recently when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. This spring, Terrazas set aside $200,000 in grant money for the work.

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