Kristine Larson and Jennifer Wilcox

Kristine Larson and Jennifer Wilcox, longtime LAFD veterans, are part of a coalition of female firefighters in LA and advocates who are calling for LAFD Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas’ removal and replacement.

A coalition of female firefighters and advocates released a demand letter to Mayor Eric Garcetti, denouncing Los Angeles Fire Department’s culture of “rampant sexism, racism and abuse in the ranks that women and minorities routinely face.” 

They called for the removal of LAFD’s lead authority, Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas, who could not be reached for comment.

The Equity on Fire (EOF) coalition — consisting of Los Angeles Women in the Fire Service (LAWFS), a women’s LAFD employee association; Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California; Women’s March Action and the California National Organization of Women — gathered on a virtual meeting on Oct. 18 to publicly address the unsafe work environment women and minority firefighters experience within the department, according to a statement.

EOF is asking for the fire chief to be removed and replaced along with a demonstration of accountability from Terrazas, who “has ignored, downplayed, denied or actively obstructed any investigation into the cultural problems within LAFD,” the demand letter reads. 

EOF speakers in the virtual press conference said the perpetual “bullying culture” among the LAFD ranks under Terrazas’ leadership “deep-seated racism and sexism” goes unaddressed. 

Kristine Larson, president of Los Angeles Women in the Fire Service and a 31-year LAFD veteran and officer, said numbers of equal employment opportunity (EEO) violations are growing within the department and that Terrazas is aware of the upward trend of LAFD’s discrimination and harassment.

Larson explained that Terrazas receives regular briefings, notifying him of complaints within the department, from LAFD’s professional standards division (PSD), which handles complaint and disciplinary action “in compliance with federal, state and local news and departmental policy,” according to the Professional Standards Division complaint form.

“He knows about these incidents.”

She said he discounts that EEO violations have increased from seven in 2017 to 63 in 2019. 

“(Terrazas) doesn’t seem to think that’s an issue, but it is,” she said.

“If you continue to have more and more complaints from year to year, there has to be something you can do, whether that’s training, messaging, anything that will get people to understand that we need to treat each other with compassion and humility.”

In a recent incident with Terrazas, Larson described how Los Angeles Women in the Fire Service surveyed LAFD’s female firefighters and found “77% of them said that they have been harassed at work. I brought that up to him and he (didn’t seem to care),” she said. 

Lauren Andrade, a fire captain in Orange County and an 18-year veteran firefighter, spoke in solidarity with female firefighters at the virtual EOF meeting. 

Andrade documented stories told to her by fellow female firefighters in the LAFD and said “they have had raw meat placed in their backpacks or bedding left to rot” and “they have been referred to as trash with ‘junk,’ spray painted on their jackets and helmets.”

More LAFD abuse allegations are documented in the letter to Garcetti that describes the abuse as “overt harassment, such as encountering feces spread around the female restroom, facing male co-workers as they expose themselves to us while pronouncing ‘this is what a fireman looks like,’ finding racist items left around the fire station, enduring a steady stream of racist and sexist comments, and even being physically attacked.”

Andrade closed her talk during the virtual meeting with a narrative shared from an anonymous woman in the LAFD, who alleges that a fellow 15-year veteran firefighter raped her. 

“I have chosen to remain anonymous because I know the pain that will come with the exposure,” Andrade said, reading the anonymous statement. 

“I’ve been told there is nothing more that I can do. It’s his word against mine; a man and 15-year veteran versus me, a rookie and female. … This event has made this past year the worst year of my life,” Andrade continued reading. 

“Someone who I work with, who I have ran into burning buildings with, who is supposed to have my back, took everything from me. We weren’t friends. He barely acknowledged me when I was at work and only talked to me when it was necessary. I was raped in a fire station by a fellow fighter.”

Larson corroborated the anonymous statement read by Andrade and a few details provided by EOF explaining that the 2016 incident left the victim traumatized, leading her to not report the incident. The incident was reported by another fellow LAFD firefighter to the PSD; however, an investigation into the case was dropped due to the victim deciding not to go on the record. According to EOF, the victim remained anonymous out of fear of retaliation.

This is not an isolated incident, according to Larson. “We (the LAFD) have a history of doing bad things to people who report abuses in this organization,” she said. The firefighters have been “blackballed” or their gear and food tampered with in retaliation of other incidents. 

“The deep-seated tradition of not ‘ratting’ people out — if that’s what you want to call it — keeps people in fear of not saying anything, and that’s the culture we have to change,” Larson said. 

“If you’re being discriminated against, you should be able to make a complaint, have it validated and have that individual punished. That’s not what’s happening, because people are too afraid to say anything, and they suffer in silence for it.”

According to published reports, Garcetti received a letter from Los Angeles Fire Commissioner Rebecca Ninburg that confirmed EOF’s description of LAFD’s unkempt, abusive culture. 

“I have seen firsthand how Chief Terrazas has refused to take action against the ever-growing culture of racism, sexism, retaliation and abuse in the Department,” Ninburg wrote. 

“Urgency is required at this moment to create a safe environment for all LAFD firefighters — without which this department has been allowed to enable dangerous behavior time and again.”

Ninburg’s letter comes a day after Garcetti released a statement, regarding the allegations directed at the fire chief, just hours after the virtual EOF meeting. Garcetti supported Terrazas, saying he has “full confidence” in him. 

“We need to make the change now,” Larson said. “If we can’t make the change now, it’s never going to happen. We can’t have the next generation of firefighters coming on that are going to face this level of bullying, discrimination and harassment. … How many women have to be abused by different men before we finally say, ‘Enough is enough?’”