The Los Angeles Fire Department is one agency that everyone welcomes. The main reason is when LAFD comes, it’s usually in response to an emergency and their presence ensures that aid is forthcoming.
Having tremendous public support is a great asset, acknowledged Fire Chief Ralph M. Terrazas, but by no means is he resting on his laurels. Instead, he aspires to generate even more favor by leading his department in making Los Angeles a safer city.
Appointed to the top spot in 2014, Terrazas has focused on fulfilling LAFD’s vision of providing exceptional fire protection and emergency medical services to the city’s 3.9 million people. With a staff of 3,800+, he believes his team is making the dream a reality utilizing a range of strategies.
“I’ve been in this position a little over five years,” said the 36-year LAFD veteran, “and I’m lucky to have a team like I do. In addition to our employees, the team includes our unions that we do business with and the mayor and the city council. We have been very fortunate to have a strong support.
“Being the fire chief for the last five years is just been an extension of what I have been doing, incrementally learning more and through that experience, I have met a lot of people in various positions. When I was appointed, I put those people in their lane with their talent matching that job and I think that has led to a lot of our success,” said Terrazas.
Achieving success in the sprawling metropolis of L.A. is not easy. The city’s 469-square-miles contain a diverse geography of mountains, valleys, plus a river and ocean. High-density apartments, spacious mansions, homeless encampments and tens of thousands of single-family homes dot L.A.’s landscape along with scores of skyscrapers, multiple industrial areas, the world’s fifth largest airport and one of the nation’s busiest ports.
“Los Angeles’ geography is what makes it so exciting to be a firefighter. From one day to the next, we never know what we may encounter. We have one system where everyone goes to the same training and has the same equipment, but the geography changes,” explained Terrazas.
“We all get trained on brush fire fighting or marine fire fighting or commercial structure fires and medical calls. The challenging, diverse types of incidents are really just an adrenaline rush and we utilize our skills that we have trained for. It’s very unique and special.”
Excelling in a variety of incidents has helped LAFD chalk-up impressive statistics in preserving life and property and promoting public safety. Last year, the department answered to 382,128 emergency medical calls, 4,024 structural fires and 66,674 additional incidents. Response times to all calls occurred in less than seven minutes, which many consider a significant feat in light of L.A.’s congested streets.
LAFD has also mounted a campaign to promote fire safety via several community initiatives. Through a partnership with the American Red Cross and MySafe:LA, firefighters participate in community fairs, distribute free smoke alarms to Los Angeles residents, and install alarms in thousands of homes each year. Staff also operates a Community Risk Reduction Unit, which instructs people in identifying safety risks and hazards in their home and neighborhood. Workshops are offered on topics such as residential escape planning, bleeding control, fall prevention and hands-only CPR.
Young people, between the ages of 14 to 20, can learn about fire service careers by participating in one of LAFD’s Youth Programs. The High School Firefighter/EMS Magnet Program (FEMS), collaboration with LAUSD, teaches physical fitness preparation, CPR/First AID, career skills and character development. Sixty-three students at Dorsey High School, which is one of five schools with the program, participate in FEMS.
The Youth Fire Instruction Recruitment and Education Program (F.I.R.E.) offers a curriculum covering introductory firefighting and EMS activities, career readiness, leadership, physical fitness and mentorship. The LAFD Girls Camp features training with equipment such as ladders and extinguishers, and leadership and team building activities. The Fire Cadet Program allows teens with the opportunity to work in a fire station to learn the duties and responsibilities of firefighters.
To assist local youths in becoming a full-time firefighter, Terrazas created the Train to Hire Rescue Ambulance Apprenticeship Program to gives qualified LAFD cadets a chance for part-time employment and experience in working on a rescue ambulance.
“I have money to hire a total of eight kids for 20 hours a week. It’s a small number this year, but I want to hire two kids at each cadet post,” he said. “They can work and go to school and this can go on their resume. We want to guide them down the path and hopefully, they go on to get their degrees and come back and I can offer them a job.”
While Terrazas admitted that a firefighter “is a job you can obtain with a high school degree, you cannot be competitive with just a high school diploma. The top candidates have a four-year degree, graduated from a fire academy and they may be a paramedic or just out of the military. [I want to] encourage our kids to go down that path to become competitive like everybody else.
“My desire is to hire kids from the community, but unless our young men and women develop the resume and have the education, they can’t compete. It’s not a fair playing field unless we can provide these programs [like Train to Hire] and give them some idea of what is needed to become a firefighter.”
In addition to hiring more local people, Terrazas aims to continue improving diversity in the LAFD ranks. In 1974, 97 percent of the department was Caucasian males. Currently, about half of the staff is comprised of minorities with Hispanics making up 31 percent, African Americans at 11.3 percent Asians at 5.8 percent and Native Americans at 2.4 percent.
“Females are now 3.4 percent and our goal is to get to 5 percent. That’s been a challenge, but it is a challenge for all fire departments. But we are on the forefront. We have a higher percent of females than any other department across the country. By far, we are better. The fire department is very diverse. Every ethnicity is represented and I’m happy to say that we are always over 50 percent since I was appointed in 2014,” said Terrazas.
LAFD is making big strides in technology as well. Tests are underway of an electric fire engine, which will help the environment, and robot tanks that squirt water, which can enter a burning structure to extinguish a fire. Terrazas said, “It is safer for our firefighters and will put the fire out quicker and we will save water. The technology will further solidify our position as the greatest fire department in the world.”
With all of the great things happening at LAFD, the fire chief has only one wish when it comes to his tenure: “I would like my legacy to be that I left it better than I found it. That is LAFD culture – I should leave it better than I found it. When you go to a fire, you put the fire out, the people are safe and everything is better. We are a can-do organization.”
Lauren Floyd and Imani Sumbi contributed to this story.