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Women At Los Angeles Fire Department Say Harassment And Retaliation Keep Them Quiet About Abuse
The women who fight fires for the city of Los Angeles say abuse is part of department culture and reporting it can be “career-ending.”
An illustration shows a woman carrying a ladder on which there are figures of people with the words: You Can't Do It
(Alborz Kamalizad
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LAist)
(Alborz Kamalizad
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Teresa remembers the moment she recognized her lifelong passion for firefighting had turned rotten.

It was soon after she returned to work at her Los Angeles Fire Department station from a medical leave. Someone had vandalized her yellow work jacket, spray painting “JUNK” across the back. A printed photo of a dead rat was left inside the women’s locker room.

And one day, she says, she opened the duffle bag where her bedding was stored (on-duty firefighters sleep at the station), and a putrid smell hit her like a ton of bricks. Raw chicken had been stuffed inside and the spoiled meat was attracting flies. Maggots crawled out of her blankets and sheets.

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Sometimes, hazing veered into sexual harassment. The city upgraded its fire stations— more than 100 of them — with women’s restrooms and locker rooms about 20 years ago, but the quality of the facilities varies widely from station to station. Sometimes, women firefighters must walk through men’s locker rooms or sleeping quarters to get to their designated area.

That was the case at one station where Teresa was posted during her rookie “probation” year. She says a male firefighter exposed himself to her, grabbed his genitals, and said, “This is what a real firefighter looks like.”

These days, she says, “it’s just about getting through the shift and going home. One shift at a time. One hour at a time. That’s all you can do.”

“Teresa” is not her real name. We agreed to keep her identity secret because of the retaliation and professional harm she fears she would face at work for sharing her story.

She opened the duffle bag...and a putrid smell hit her like a ton of bricks. Raw chicken had been stuffed inside [to rot]...Maggots crawled out of her blankets and sheets.
— Account from LAFD firefighter 'Teresa'
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Teresa is one of the very few women to become a firefighter for the city of Los Angeles, one of the largest municipal fire departments in the country — an institution with a world-class reputation, known for high standards and adherence to tradition.

Women Say They Face Hostility And Retribution

Teresa’s experiences echo the stories female LAFD firefighters have shared for decades: while serving the city of L.A, they face verbal abuse, isolation, hostile pranks and training exercises designed to humiliate. Sometimes, sexual harassment and threats of violence — in a few cases, assault. Speaking out or reporting problems is rare in the face of peer pressure, intimidation and retaliation.

An African American woman in a black Los Angeles Fire Department uniform stands in a park. She is wearing sunglasses and looking off-frame. She is smiling slightly.
Los Angeles Fire Department Battalion Chief Kris Larson is the co-founder of Equity on Fire, a nonprofit fighting harassment and abuse in the fire service.
(Libby Denkmann/LAist)

“There is absolute retribution within this organization,” said LAFD Battalion Chief Kris Larson at a recent meeting of the Los Angeles Fire Commission. “You get labeled, you get stigmatized — especially as a female because there are so few of us.”

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Former LAFD firefighter Katie Becker left the department in 2019 after experiencing years of hazing and treatment that, she told LAist, communicated “an underlying distaste for women in the fire service.”

Female firefighters say they routinely endure unequal and abusive treatment while on the job at the Los Angeles Fire Department, and they charge that institutions meant to protect them generally look the other way or enable the misconduct.

This story is based on interviews with more than 20 sources, most of them current and former firefighters ranging in experience from rookies to battalion chiefs. Accounts from additional city employees, mayoral appointees with direct knowledge of LAFD, and department whistleblowers also informed the reporting.

Most spoke on the condition of anonymity because they fear reprisal at work. Many came forward in response to the resurfacing of Becker’s 2019 letter to a female battalion chief, which described LAFD as “full [of] bigoted men who actively tried to make me and most of my coworkers miserable.”

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The letter went all the way up the ranks of the department to Chief Ralph Terrazas and to Mayor Eric Garcetti, who say the claims were fully investigated. The department ultimately took little action, citing a lack of specifics in Becker’s allegations.

A letter from Aneta Freeman of the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office to attorney Gloria Allred, obtained by LAist, said that Becker did not cooperate when asked to provide more details.

Women who spoke to us say they didn’t want to see Becker — and the issues she raised — dismissed as an outlier.

“Katie’s words brought back all kinds of early experiences I had on the job,” said one high ranking firefighter with more than 20 years' experience. “And then the realization hit that this stuff is still happening.”

Decades after the city’s own investigations began unearthing serious human resources problems at LAFD, and after the city has paid out numerous large settlements for harassment and racist conduct, firsthand accounts indicate city leaders have failed to follow through on pledges to root out hazing, sexism and racism at the department.

Now, the department says, it needs more information from an ongoing organizational study meant to shed light on the agency’s cultural issues. The investigation was first requested by the group Los Angeles Women in the Fire Service (LAWFS) more than three years ago and has been stalled by funding issues several times, but LAFD says it’s now underway, with results expected as early as December.

The sources who spoke for this story say previous audits and reforms in the wake of past scandals have not changed core problems at LAFD that fuel toxic interpersonal dynamics at many fire stations, which, they say, ultimately harm men and women of all races.

All of this is happening within a political context: the firefighters’ union remains a key endorsement for local and national politicians, and firefighters enjoy a heroic status in the public’s imagination, which critics say protects the department from lasting consequences.

Accounts Of 'Constant Scrutiny'

There are currently 115 female sworn firefighters at LAFD — roughly 3.5% of the 3,300-strong force. It’s a marginal improvement from the 2.9% women at the department when Garcetti took office slightly more than eight years ago, but short of the mayor’s goal of the 5% level he pledged to meet by 2020.

Mayoral spokesperson Harrison Wollman said in an email that, going forward, “Mayor Garcetti is pushing to increase the percentage of women in the applicant pool, and has instructed his team to lead the creation of a comprehensive outreach and recruitment strategy ahead of the next application period.”

The persistently low representation of women at LAFD reflects paltry numbers nationally. The share of professional firefighters who are women is around 4%, according to the most recent data available, a 2018 survey of local and municipal fire departments around the country. That lags far behind other physically demanding, service-oriented careers.

Some departments stand out in their ability to recruit and retain women firefighters: In San Francisco, more than 15% of sworn personnel are female, and Minneapolis has reported a similarly high share.

But in New York and Chicago, women only make up roughly 1% of the fire service. And all-female crews are still so rare they make headlines.

(For comparison: slightly more than 18% of sworn L.A. Police Department personnel are women. And according to the GAO, the U.S. military’s total force was 16.5% female in 2018 — though the numbers varied between service branches.)

Some researchers have projected the “expected representation” of women in the fire service to be 17%, based on census data that documents the number of women of firefighting age and education level who are employed in comparable “demanding, dirty or dangerous” occupations — including military, law enforcement and construction jobs.

Every year, LAFD firefighters respond to hundreds of thousands of calls for medical assistance — incidents such as traffic accidents, heart attacks and assaults. Emergency Medical Service calls make up more than 80% of LAFD dispatches, though fighting fires remains the major focus of regular training and readiness at LAFD stations, with frequent drilling targeting strength, stamina and mastery of fire equipment.

Critics who have called for increasing the gender and racial diversity at LAFD are often met with pushback: the result, they claim, will be lowered standards at the department, which has a notoriously high bar for physical tests each firefighter must pass, regardless of gender.

Becker says the notion that recruiting more women firefighters would compromise training standards is “offensive.” “I had to throw the same ladders. I had to do the same workouts, the same everything,” she said in an interview. “They don't need to lower the standards. They just need to lower the abuse.”

The Challenges, Firsthand

Conversations we had with early-career firefighters shed light on the challenges for women at LAFD.

A former recruit described her LAFD training academy experience as being “fed to the wolves.” From the moment recruits walked in, she said, “instructors are yelling at you, calling you names, degrading you, calling you out. It was constant.”

Instructors described hazing as “team building,” she recalled, and casually referred to certain LAFD fire stations as off-limits to Black personnel.

“Every day there was something I couldn’t believe,” she said. She left the LAFD academy and is now employed at another fire department where, she said, training was a positive experience.

“Part of LAFD’s culture is [the idea that] they are the biggest and the baddest,” she said. “And if you want to stay here, this is what you have to put up with. It's terrible. That's not something I'd ever want to be a part of.”

Other women said the academy was difficult, but they didn’t feel singled out as females until they graduated and entered their probationary period at LAFD — a year when rookie firefighters rotate through three stations to focus on learning different aspects of the job.

They don't need to lower the standards. They just need to lower the abuse.
— Former LAFD firefighter Katie Becker

Verbal abuse and hazing is a daily reality for male and female rookies at LAFD, multiple women said, but women face a greater level of scrutiny and bullying by fellow firefighters.

One woman described being the only female firefighter on her shift, and the men made it clear: “I was not wanted there. I was not welcome.”

Senior members who were supposed to be mentors instead ostracized and avoided her, to the point of retreating to the men’s locker room — making it impossible to seek the hands-on training she needed to succeed. Others would pepper her with questions on obscure minutiae of procedure or equipment. When she didn’t come up with correct answers, she said, the heckling was merciless.

You don't know anything. You shouldn't be here. You know you shouldn't be here, they would say,” she recalled. “All these mental games. It breaks you down.”

The male rookies at her firehouse did not face the same level of abusive treatment, she said. “I do feel like there's some houses that are trying to push women out,” she said. “And I don't see them trying to break down the guys in the same way.”

The women’s restroom was always filthy, she said, with men leaving unflushed waste for her to find when she arrived for work. Multiple women described similar experiences — sometimes excrement was left in shower stalls or on bathroom floors.

“The abuse got to the level [where] I would get physically ill arriving at my station,” she said. “And I threw up.”

The firefighter we’re calling Teresa says she was also treated with suspicion and open resentment by a vocal group of male colleagues and supervisors immediately on entering one of her rookie houses.

You don't know anything. You shouldn't be here. You know you shouldn't be here, they would say...The abuse got to the level [where] I would get physically ill arriving at my station. I threw up.
— Early career firefighter who spoke anonymously to LAist

On one of Teresa's first days, a captain accused her of using her cell phone to record profane “guy talk,” she said. She described an atmosphere of fear that prevented rookies from asking questions to avoid the torment that would follow.

“You're always told that your name is written in pencil,” Teresa said. “So you could be erased at any time.”

Saturdays and Sundays, known as “drill days,” are when fire stations test skills, fitness and operational knowledge. But Teresa says, as a woman, they felt more like exercises in humiliation.

“You would dread those days,” she says. “It would be focused on trying to get you to fail. Or, making fun of you — not teaching you.”

“[Women rookies] never got a fair shake,” said another firefighter who spent several years with LAFD but has since left her job. “You hit this wall of misogyny and sexism that blows apart what you thought this job was. It’s horrendous. The way that they treat people and the things they are allowed to get away with and say are absolutely insane. It has nothing to do with learning the job.

“Guys will say things like, Oh, well, we have to watch what we do or say now because there’s a female on this station,” she added. “[But] we’re in a workplace — the fact that you have to be so careful what you say shows me that you're a racist and sexist person, because a normal person wouldn't have to censor themselves.”

Some male firefighters, she said, had a clear message: women don’t belong at LAFD. And those voices drowned out the supportive colleagues who offered reassurance when others weren’t looking.

“I met really awesome people who I feel like are trying to change that narrative within the department,” a former recruit said, but “those men will not speak up for you [in public] when they notice that someone is saying something sexist. Because if they do, then they're going against the department and the culture that the department promotes.”

Former LAFD firefighter Katie Becker said department bullies had a word for other fire personnel who didn’t fit in. They were labeled “trash” — similar to the graffiti found on Teresa’s jacket. One day when Becker said she returned to work after four days off, “I was checking out all my equipment and I turned my helmet over," she recalled, "and someone at my station had written ‘trash’ inside of the helmet brim."

I tell young women: it’s the most rewarding job, but you also have to have the intestinal fortitude to show up every day at a place of work where you're not wanted — but you might be tolerated.
— A recently retired LAFD firefighter

“It was hazing to make you quit,” Becker said. “They wanted to weed out the weak … they saw that as a badge of honor [when someone left the department]. They would say, ‘trash outwe don’t need them.'"

The LAFD has a formal complaint tracking system — known as CTS — for firefighters to submit internal complaints. It was created in 2008, implemented in the wake of past scandals over racist and sexist misconduct, and public audits that found the department didn’t keep consistent records of harassment, hazing and hostile work environment grievances.

But every woman who spoke with us — rookies through battalion chiefs — said reporting the abuse through the department’s formal system was typically not a viable option if they planned on remaining at LAFD.

A universal rule of the fire service, they said, is that firefighters talk to each other. News travels fast around the department, and it’s difficult to maintain the reporting party’s anonymity. The fallout from a complaint can derail your career.

“I got pulled aside once and one of the guys was like, ‘If you ever write a CTS report, everybody knows you wrote it, it always comes back to you,’” said one female firefighter in an interview. “He said, ‘Nothing good has ever come from it. So if you have a complaint about any of us, you better not write a report. All it's going to do is ruin your career. You just need to keep your mouth shut.’”

Many sources shared stories of reprisals, or the looming threat of them, after women reported misconduct.

In one instance, after filing a workplace complaint, a firefighter began receiving anonymous online messages, including explicit descriptions of her body and threats of sexual violence. (LAist reviewed copies of the messages.) She believes the timing and content of the messages indicated they were connected to LAFD.

“If this is not harassment, retaliation and intimidation," she said, "I don't know what the hell is."

The [male firefighter] was like, ‘If you ever write a [complaint tracking system] report, everybody knows you wrote it, it always comes back to you...All it's going to do is ruin your career.'
— Firefighter describing advice from her coworker

The LAFD says it has zero tolerance for abuse or discrimination, and reviews every complaint immediately to decide whether it should be investigated by its Professional Standards Division or a field investigator — usually a direct supervisor. Any alleged criminal activity, including vandalism or threats, is also referred to police.

Department officials say they prioritize the safety of all members involved, as well as ensuring a fair investigation and disciplinary process.

Even when incidents are reported and investigations are conducted, however, sources said they believe misconduct related to sexual or racial discrimination results in a slap on the wrist — possibly a short suspension — while the alleged victim bears longterm consequences.

“It's mostly male firefighters interviewing male firefighters,” said a current LAFD member. “So nothing's going to happen. They're going to pat each other on the back like, Hey, dude, don't do this again. I got you.”

“But if a woman says she’s been sexually harassed on the job, and stays at LAFD, she’ll be ostracized for the next 20-plus years of her life.”

The LAFD says it has policies in place to conduct unbiased and thorough investigations, and female LAFD members are a part of, and have even headed, the Professional Standards Division. If a perpetrator is found guilty of misconduct, the department says any form of discipline — suspension, dismissal or written action — is based on set guidelines negotiated with the union that represents sworn firefighters.

The United Firefighters of Los Angeles City (UFLAC) did not respond to requests for comment.

Said one recently retired firefighter: “I tell young women it’s the most rewarding job, but you also have to have the intestinal fortitude to show up every day at a place of work where you're not wanted — but you might be tolerated.”

In more than two decades at LAFD, she said she endured plenty of cold-shoulder treatment and outright sexism. “I never [filed a complaint], because I didn't want to throw in the towel and be like, Yep, you guys win,” she said. “I just wanted to tough it out and show them I can be a firefighter.”

Climbing (And Throwing) The Ladder

In the past few years, women have climbed the ranks at LAFD higher than ever before.

The city’s first female Fire Marshall, Kristin Crowley, was recently promoted to Acting Chief Deputy Of Administrative Operations, a prominent management post in the tier just below Chief Terrrazas.

In an interview for this story, Crowley said her 22 years at LAFD have been largely positive, “but I'm also very mindful and very empathetic to other individuals at the department who haven't had the same experience as me,” she said. “We need to take a big step back and listen.”

Hearing about female — and minority — firefighters who continue to endure abuse on the job “saddens me,” Crowley said. “But it also motivates me and has pushed me through the years to promote through the ranks to be able to influence policy at the highest level.”

She mentioned strengthening policies to address training and accountability, and expanding mentorship for women to help build firefighters’ confidence that help is available when they encounter a problem.

“We need to have the women feel more supported so that if this is occurring, that we can create that space for them to feel safe so that they can report it, because if they don't report it, then how are we going to address it as a department?”

Crowley pointed out the complaint tracking system is only as good as the information that’s provided by firefighters.

“We want to ensure — and I can't stress this enough — that every member who comes to work feels safe, that they feel supported, that they feel included and that we take care of one another.”

We need to have the women feel more supported so that if this is occurring, that we can create that space for them to feel safe so that they can report it, because if they don't report it, then how are we going to address it as a department?
— Kristen Crowley, LAFD Acting Chief Deputy Of Administrative Operations

LAFD contracted with consulting firm Deloitte to conduct the long-delayed operational assessment, and the effort is “off and running,” Crowley said. Surveys have been sent out to all sworn and civilian LAFD employees.

“How do we make it better for our members? How do we create that work environment where we truly internalize the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion? That’s where we want to be.”

The mayor’s office also pointed to the surveys as a key tool to shape anti-harassment policy. “Mayor Garcetti is … committed to finishing the independent report now underway,” wrote spokesperson Harrison Wollman. “So that we can make the changes necessary to put an end to the negative experiences that have been described, cement our zero tolerance for mistreatment and discrimination, and send a very strong message that women’s leadership and equality for all firefighters are integral to the mission of LAFD.”

Trust is in short supply, however: The same firefighters who first pushed for the study in 2017 now say they worry the process will be sanitized by union and political influence.

“The Mayor will not allow that to happen,” said Wollman, contending the process has been “inclusionary and transparent,” including members of the Los Angeles Women in the Fire Service and the Stentorians, the organization representing Black firefighters at LAFD, on its steering committee.

Fault Lines Put Department In Spotlight

After 19 months of providing key support to the city’s pandemic response, LAFD leadership is facing a maelstrom of internal strife over alleged racism, political divisions and COVID-19 vaccines. A lawsuit filed in September on behalf of more than 500 firefighters challenges the city’s vaccine mandate for all employees.

In June, six African American arson investigators sued the LAFD, claiming the department treats minority employees unfairly because of a “good old white boys club” at the helm. And in July, groups representing Black and Latino firefighters requested a federal investigation into alleged racial bias and civil rights violations at the LAFD.

Members of the civilian oversight body, the Los Angeles Fire Commission, have been in open conflict over reforms for more than a year. In May, the board was rocked by accusations that Mayor Garcetti’s office made a backroom deal with the firefighters’ union to oust an outspoken commissioner, Andrew Glazier — a claim the union and the mayor’s team strongly denied.

Board members talked about the deep fault lines emerging within the department at a meeting last month, including charges of an ongoing hostile work environment for women and Black firefighters.

“I continue to get calls from firefighters with horror stories of discrimination they've endured silently, because they don't trust the complaint process,” commissioner Rebecca Ninburg said, addressing Chief Terrazas. “This is your department. And this is happening on your watch. And still, you have said nothing about the racism and sexism that has gripped this department.”

“Unfortunately, due process takes time,” Terrazas responded. “I think many times our members get frustrated because they don't see a quick outcome. But we're not going to sacrifice due process because people want it to be accelerated.”

The chief added: “If the preponderance of evidence indicates that a wrong was committed, then that member will be held accountable in compliance with the disciplinary guidelines.” (Terrazas was not available for an interview for this story.)

Due process takes time... I think many times our members get frustrated because they don't see a quick outcome. But we're not going to sacrifice due process because people want it to be accelerated.
— Los Angeles Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas at a Sept. 21 Fire Commission Meeting

“I know that there are allegations of [a hostile work environment], but we don't see the complaints going to PSD,” commissioner Delia Ibarra said later in the meeting, referring to the department’s Professional Standards Division. “If those complaints aren't going to PSD, there's not that much that we can do.”

Battalion Chief Kris Larson pushed back, saying women and Black firefighters know the department is “gossipy,” and that stepping out of line to report misconduct draws backlash.

“If I make a complaint ... It'll get out there,” said Larson, the highest ranking African American woman in the history of LAFD. She recently helped co-found a nonprofit dedicated to ending racism and gender discrimination in the fire service.

“It's easy to say, Put it into [the complaint tracking system], but people are deathly afraid of retribution,” she said. “And to be honest with you, they do not trust the system.”

Chief Terrazas responded: “Any complaint, we want that to be entered into CTS. And if there's any retaliation, we want that entered into CTS and we will fully investigate.”

Commissioner Ninburg, notably frustrated, spoke up: “Chief Larson just explained that there is no trust in the process … You're the chief. What are you going to do to help create a safe environment so that women, African Americans, white members, Latinos, who are discriminated against … feel safe to come forward and speak their truth?”

Not Welcome In The 'Brotherhood'

That would be a welcome change for the female firefighters we spoke with, including the woman we’re calling Teresa. At the age of 12, she says, she already had her heart set on one career. To prepare, she wrote letters to her local fire department.

“I told them, I can come work for you guys soon,” she recalls. “And whoever was getting [the notes] was sending me brochures, t-shirts and stickers.”

Her childhood dream was realized almost two decades later. But pride in the accomplishment at joining the overwhelmingly male department didn’t last. Instead, she says, she found hostility and contempt from many colleagues — the “LAFD brotherhood” was not open to her.

Teresa sums up her feelings as “heartbreak.”

“The calls are stressful. But I’d much rather run into a burning building than hang out at the fire station,” she says.

“I love the job. I just really hate the culture.”

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