Mayor names L.A.’s first Latino fire chief

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Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has named the first Latino to lead the city's Fire Department as it struggles with an onslaught of criticism over staff reductions, lagging response times, slow progress in hiring women and minorities and outdated technology.

The choice of Assistant Chief Ralph M. Terrazas, a Los Angeles native who was raised in Wilmington and lives in San Pedro, was announced Tuesday by Garcetti after a nationwide search for a replacement for former Chief Brian Cummings, who resigned under pressure last fall as the agency's troubles multiplied.

"I want to fight, with the mayor, to reform the Fire Department," Terrazas said after being introduced at a City Hall news conference.

Garcetti said the 54-year-old Terrazas would be the first Latino chief in the department's 128-year history and "the best of insider and outsider" to lead the agency forward. Terrazas' appointment must be approved by the City Council, which the mayor said he expects to happen in August.

Minutes after Terrazas' selection was announced, the city's influential firefighters union released a statement congratulating him, but also warning that rank-and-file members will resist a series of changes being discussed for the LAFD, some of which have been supported by the mayor and previous fire chiefs.

Terrazas worked his way up through the department over the last 30 years and recently was a top chief overseeing dozens of firehouses serving the southern section of the city.

He also helped establish and lead the LAFD's Professional Standards Division, created six years ago to reform a troubled discipline system roiled by discrimination and bias complaints that led to millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded legal payouts.

If confirmed, Terrazas will be paid $292,000 annually and take charge at a crucial juncture for the LAFD, which has more than 3,200 sworn members and has been buffeted by a series of recent controversies and deep, recession-driven budget cuts.

Earlier this year, the department was forced to overhaul how it hires firefighters amid concerns about nepotism and a failure to recruit significant numbers of women and minorities. The agency has also been struggling to upgrade its aging technology and create a unit to analyze response time and other operational data. The unit was approved after Cummings and other top fire officials admitted to misstating how fast rescuers get to victims during emergencies.

Cummings announced his retirement in October, three months after the inauguration of Garcetti, who made improving the LAFD a cornerstone of his successful campaign last year.

Terrazas' selection was welcomed by several council members and firefighters. Councilman Mitchell Englander, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said he was looking forward to working with Terrazas "in cutting response times and instituting a data-driven culture."

Veteran firefighter Steve Tufts worked with Terrazas a decade ago at Firehouse 26 in the Harvard Heights neighborhood south of Koreatown. "I have no doubt that Terrazas will carry on the high standard of the department," he said.

Terrazas was an avid jogger and golfer, and known for being an evenhanded firehouse supervisor, Tufts said.

One potential challenge for Terrazas, if he pushes aggressively to change the agency, may come from the firefighters union. Among other things, United Firefighters of Los Angeles City has vowed to fight replacing sworn firefighters with civilians at the agency's 911 dispatch center, a proposal that has been raised repeatedly at City Hall in recent years.

Garcetti has said he wants to merge the LAFD call center with the Police Department's dispatch operation, which the mayor says would improve response times. A consolidation also could result in lower-paid civilians handling more LAFD emergency medical calls.

Terrazas noted Tuesday that civilians were brought in as investigators under his command at the agency's internal watchdog unit. He described that decision as a "smart move." He did not elaborate or offer views on using civilians in other department positions, and did not respond to a request for an interview.

Capt. Frank Lima, president of United Firefighters of Los Angeles City, said the union was optimistic about Terrazas and holding out "the biggest olive branch."

But, he added, "don't mistake our kindness for weakness."

Lima noted that the union clashed with Terrazas when he led the internal investigation operation, which some firefighters claimed treated rank-and-file members more harshly than command officers. The division also was faulted by the Fire Department's independent assessor in 2010 for failing to meet established operating standards. Firefighters still strongly criticize the investigations division.

"Every stakeholder agrees that [the division] has problems, and he was the founding father," Lima said of Terrazas.

Terrazas has been a member of Los Bomberos, an organization that has represented Latino firefighters in the department.

Another top candidate for the job, Interim Chief James G. Featherstone, took temporary command of the department in November. Garcetti thanked Featherstone for his service, but added that Terrazas had the best combination of experience in the field and in managing complex administrative tasks. Terrazas has a master's degree in public administration from Cal State Los Angeles, according to his online resume posted at LinkedIn.

Recent LAFD chiefs have had short tenures, with three moving in and out of the office in the last eight years. Terrazas would be the 18th person to serve as chief of the LAFD.

Jacqueline Zarate, president of the association of Latino city employees, recalled working with Terrazas during functions planned with Los Bomberos. "He'll do a great job," she said. "He's going to look at what's best for the needs of the entire city and not just Latinos."

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