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After Complaints of Rampant Sexism, LAFD Gets First Woman in Charge

Mayor Eric Garcetti selected Deputy Fire Chief Kristin Crowley to lead LAFD this week.

At an LAFD promotional ceremony in 2016, from left to right: Kristin Crowley, Jaime Brown, and Kristine Larson. (Photo by Jeremy Oberstein)

This week, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti nominated Kristin Crowley to become the Los Angeles Fire Department’s first female fire chief, pending confirmation by the Los Angeles City Council. 

Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas’ retirement was confirmed at the same time. In October, firefighters and activists demanded that Chief Terrazas step down, saying he had failed to address the discrimination against women in the department and “ignored, downplayed, denied, or actively obstructed any investigation.” An LAFD survey assessing workplace culture conducted in November also concluded that 56% of women within the department had experienced bullying and harassment on the job.

Speaking to Crowley’s appointment, Garcetti said, “There is no one better equipped to lead the LAFD at this moment than Kristin. She’s ready to make history.” 

This is not the first time Crowley is making history. A 22-year veteran, she was the department’s first female fire marshal and the second woman to earn the rank of chief deputy. She also served as program director for the LAFD’s youth development program.

However, despite promises to root out sexism at the department, both the city and the department have taken little to no action against it in the past; as reported by the LA Times when Katie Becker, former LA firefighter, came forward to speak about the abuse and sexism she faced before she was forced to quit. It was also alleged that the mayor had removed a fire commissioner because the firefighters union didn’t like his suggestions that the preexisting culture is rigged against female firefighters.

Not only is Crowley inheriting a department with deep-rooted misogyny issues, but she will also have to tackle firefighters’ mass refusal to get vaccinated against COVID-19

Fire commissioner Rebecca Ninburg says, “She is going to follow the mandate. She’s going to continue to educate, she’s going to implement the city policies and hold people to account if they don’t comply.”

A former roller skater and the co-founder of the LA Derby Dolls, Ninburg left the rink in 2015 to work for the City of Los Angeles Fire Commission. She met Crowley 12 years ago at an event by the LA Derby Dolls and says Crowley has been focused on gender and racial equity since the beginning.   

“Crowley is a straight shooter. She will never put anybody in danger and doesn’t cave to political pressure. She wants the department to truly reflect the people it serves,” Ninburg said. “And she understands also that just her being in her body, as a woman in that position, well, has an impact.”

Ninburg believes that the demands of the firefighters’ work have also changed over the years and the benefits of having women on the front lines are unprecedented. “We have to reimagine who can do this job,” she said. “And we really have to understand what we’re valuing and what makes a great firefighter.”

As a part of Women’s History Month in 2018, the LAFD recognized some of the first women to hold key positions within the department. Among them were Kristine Larson, pictured third from left, and Kristin Crowley, pictured fourth from left. (Photo by Alex Gillman)

Just 4% of career firefighters in the United States are female. According to interviews with career firefighters, most women joining the fire service consistently face doubt, microaggressions, blatant sexism, sexual harassment, and abuse.

“Some men don’t believe that women should be firefighters,” said Battalion Chief Kristine Larson.

Larson is a real-life firefighting warrior. She sports a short fade haircut and intricate Māori and tribal tattoos on her upper arms. A gifted athlete, she’s a three-time All-American athlete in track & field. When she joined the LAFD at 25, about thirty-one years ago, she was ahead of the game.

Larson graduated from UCLA in 1989 and was already halfway through her master’s program specializing in public service leadership at Capella University in Minneapolis. Her rise within the department was arduous. In 2017, she became the first Black female captain promoted to battalion chief at the LAFD.

Some sexist attitudes have changed in her time at the department, but many haven’t.

In 2016, as Larson was taking her battalion chief exam, one of the male test-takers questioned her saying, “What are you doing here?” 

“It was an attempt to belittle my accomplishments as an officer already within the department,” Larson said. All her extensive experience had more than qualified her to test for the battalion chief position.

“I was taken aback that someone would say something out loud like that,” Larson said. 

To be able to do their jobs, all active firefighters, male or female, must pass a rigorous standardized physical ability test. Despite passing the required tests to prove their abilities, women remain largely unwelcome.

“They harass the women who they feel don’t fit the mold of a firefighter or they perceive them as not being physically capable of doing the job,” Larson said. “The men always question: ‘What has she done? Where has she been?’” 

She attributes the adversity women face to a lack of representation within the fire service and welcomes the new fire chief’s appointment. “Crowley is well-respected in the department by the rank and file members and she has done the work necessary to achieve this promotion,” Larson said.

A Push for Gender Diversity

In 2016, four LAFD veterans — Alicia Welch, Monica Hall, Kristine Larson and Jennifer Wilcox — started the LAFD Girls’ Fire Camp to introduce teen girls to careers in the fire service, earning them a community service award

Hall, a battalion chief, feels most girls don’t grow up thinking that firefighting is something they can do. “When they see a fire truck going by, they don’’t typically see a woman on the fire truck,” she said. “We want the little girls to see these women as professional firefighters so that they have a model that they can follow, a goal that they can aspire to, and have somebody that they can talk to to see how to achieve that goal.”

The LAFD held its second LAFD Girls’ Camp in April 2017 to introduce teen girls from across Southern California to career possibilities in fire and EMS service. (Photo by Alex Gillman)

Female firefighters from across the country mentored attendees and taught them the fundamentals of firefighting and emergency medical services. Campers were encouraged to enlist in future training as well. Hall believes the camp is an excellent preview of the real job. “Letting young girls see what firefighting is all about, we’re going to put it on the radar. So that if it clicks with them, then they have an opportunity to prepare themselves so when they’re old enough, they will be a viable candidate,” said Hall.

Some men in the department did not understand the idea behind the camp. They assumed the camp was limited to girls and said they would protest against the exclusion of boys. “It’s called Girls’ Camp because we’re targeting girls because we want to increase our numbers, but it’s really all-inclusive,” Hall said.

The boys at the camp easily assimilate to the group dynamic, even if they are in the minority. “They always had positive comments,” Hall said. “They always learned something and I think they’ll be better men down the road, for just having had that experience to see that girls can do it too.”

Hall is optimistic about the future of women in the fire service. Despite the current climate, she thinks that more girls and women should have the opportunity to have the same experiences that make her job as a firefighter so rewarding.

“I get to rappel out of windows and I get to climb aerial ladders and I get to drive fire trucks and I’ve even driven out the fireboats,” Hall said. “It doesn’t surprise me that the little girls excel when they get their hands on the tools — they just brighten up and shine when they get to try these new things. It opens up a whole new world to them.”

The camps were held twice a year, but activities have ceased due to the pandemic.

Hall is now posted in Wilmington for fire suppression, search and rescue operations and working with divers and fireboats. She believes the only way to recruit women that fit the job is to show young girls how professional female firefighters work — and that they could too. “If you can see it, you can be it,” she said.

Women have been fighting for their place in the Los Angeles Fire Department for decades. In her current role as chief deputy, Crowley helped to develop a five-year strategic plan to identify areas of growth within the Department and as the new fire chief, she could be the push the department needs for systemic cultural change. 

At Tuesday’s event, Crowley said she was up to the task. “I will be fully committed to leading and inspiring our tremendous department into an exciting future that is filled with new opportunities to grow, to innovate and to empower.”