LOS ANGELES — Growing up in San Pedro, Ralph Terrazas had one dream — to one day become a firefighter.
Thirty-one years ago, he achieved that when he joined the Los Angeles Fire Department. Now, he has taken the ultimate step, becoming chief of the department, commanding a force of 3,200 firefighters and paramedics with a budget of $500 million.
And, he has an open-ended mandate from Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council to do what it takes to build up the size of the force to help reduce response times to improve public safety.
Garcetti said he chose because “he represents the best of an insider and outsider.
“(He) is the perfect person to lead the Fire Department,” Garcetti said.
“There is no better person to cut response times, improve technology, and bring reform to the Los Angeles Fire Department than Chief Terrazas.”
Terrazas, 54, is soft-spoken and gets to the point of any question quickly and without elaboration.
But, he said, that should not be mistaken for a lack of purpose.
Terrazas, the first Latino to hold the post of L.A. fire chief, is driven by an old-style LAFD culture.
“We get things done,” he said.
Getting things done has been his mantra in whatever assignment he has been given over the years.
Terrazas oversaw the successful Proposition F campaign in which voters approved a $500 million bond issue for new fire stations. It came in under budget and allowed the department to build extra facilities.
When he served in the communication section, he won an Emmy award for a series of public service announcements that featured John Travolta, Eric Estrada and Lou Diamond Phillips.
“That was a lot of fun,” Terrazas said. “I was like a producer with say over casting, scripts, location. We were able to use a lot of Fire Department equipment from boats and engines and were able to burn down a condemned house.”
While on the brush fire detail, he developed a program— that since has been patented — to help firefighters estimate how long it will take for a brush fire to reach a specific location.
Terrazas, who holds a master’s degree in public administration from Cal State L.A., said he hopes to emulate the low-key style of former Chief Bill Bamattre.
“I worked on his staff and appreciated the way he treated everyone with respect,” Terrazas said. “He called me up and offered to talk with me to help me figure out where some of the pitfalls in the city are.”
Terrazas also served as the first head of the LAFD’s Professional Services Division, formed after a series of expensive lawsuits and scandals involving hazing and mistreatment, an appointment that often put him at odds with the United Firefighters of Los Angeles City.
UFLAC President Frank Lima referred to that when he said the union and Terrazas had many policy differences.
And, while UFLAC ended up endorsing his appointment, it has come about only through a concerted effort of discussions.
“I was the enforcer and the union was representing firefighters,” Terrazas said. “It’s only natural there was some disagreement.
“Before the PSD, there was an arbitrary system in place on how many days of suspension a firefighter would get or if it would go to a board of rights,” Terrazas said. “We tried to make it a fair system so people would know what they would get in terms of discipline.”
The result, he said, has been a complete dropoff in legal actions against the city from firefighters.
“We still have some payouts from before the PSD was created, but none since,” Terrazas said.
As for hiring to build up the force, Terrazas said he plans to have all three drill towers open this next year to train recruits — classes he said he hopes will include more women.
One of his goals is to revive a program where firefighters recruited female athletes by encouraging and mentoring them to become firefighters.
At the same time, he said, the city needs to be careful to make sure that there are limits on the number of new firefighters still on their one-year probation assigned to stations compared to the number of experienced firefighters.
Terrazas said he wants to continue to review the hiring system used to get away from selecting classes at random.
The most recent group of 300 applicants was selected from an initial group of 10,000 who wanted to become firefighters.
Terrazas also is dealing with a series of proposals submitted by a private consulting firm on how to maximize the LAFD resources.
Terrazas said he is open to a joint computer-assisted dispatch system with the Los Angeles Police Department, as long as it mirrors what the LAPD has with two centers, allowing one to be taken down for maintenance without disturbing call response.
But, he said, before that can occur he wants to hire a technical expert to advise the department on the best path to take.
Terrazas does support switching some jobs to civilian duty, such as the technical ones, but he is holding off on replacing firefighters assigned to emergency dispatch at the 9-1-1 centers.
“I told the council I want to table that issue for a while until we figure out the whole technology issue,” Terrazas said.
And, he also supports breaking down the LAFD into four bureaus similar to how the LAPD divides up the city.
Such an approach will put one person in charge of one-fourth of the city and help improve responses and accountability, he said.
Perhaps the biggest problem facing the department is a sense of stability, he said.
Terrazas is the fifth chief in seven years.
“I have great respect for everyone who was in this job, but I plan to be here awhile,” Terrazas said.
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