Firefighting, Leadership

Firehouse Pranks or Professionalism? The LA Story

On Thursday, Battalion Chief Kwame Cooper presented highlights of a comprehensive two-year case study on what occurred in the Los Angeles City (CA) Department (LAFD) that prompted more than 25 work environment discrimination lawsuits between 2006 and 2009. In “Firehouse Pranks or Professionalism? The LA Story,” he showed the importance of effectively leading diverse commands at the local fire station level. He emphasized the importance of recognizing potential hostile work environment issues and the responsibility of supervisors to take immediate action to prevent harm to any member of the department.

Reviewing the history of the LAFD, founded in 1886, he noted the first African-American firefighter was hired in 1892. However, in 1902, African-American firefighters were segregated to a single fire station. Not until 1955 did integration begin in the department. The first female firefighter was hired in 1983, and the first African-American chief was hired in 2007. 

Cooper discussed in detail an incident in which firefighters, as a prank, secretly added dog food to an African-American firefighter’s food. The firefighter eventually sued. In the ensuing controversy, city paid a large settlement and the fire chief resigned under pressure. The LAFD was deeply affected, with tension among firefighters, low morale, less community involvement, and public distrust. Cooper offered a comprehensive review of the strategic steps the incoming fire chief took to provide leadership and commitment to confront and eliminate discrimination within the department.

Issues addressed included work environment/hazing/discrimination. The employee complaint process instituted an internal affairs department independent of the chain of command, and guidelines were created for the discipline process. The recruit academy implemented consistent performance standards to address diversity recruitment and retention issues. The academy’s performance would be analyzed through retention statistics.

Cooper and the class discussed questions such as at what point does a prank go too far, and who’s responsible for addressing the situation in the firehouse. Although the chief of the department may create policies, Cooper noted, it’s the company officers who must implement them. “The company officers run the department.” he said. 

Class attendees offered their comments, perspectives, and experiences, and Cooper reviewed recent court cases involving allegations racial/sexual harassment and discrimination. Cooper commented, “This is aconversation that we as firefighters need to have out in the open.”

Kwame Cooper is a 29-year veteran of and battalion chief with the Los Angeles City (CA) Fire Department and an instructor with the National Fire Academy.