L.A. Fire: ‘Pranks to Professionalism’

Firehouses across America are hotbeds of pranks and practical jokes, and many say it’s the culture of the fire service. Some say firefighters just need to learn to deal with it, but there’s a growing segment who say pranks have no place in a professional setting that is often dangerous.

Kwame Cooper, a battalion chief with the Los Angeles, Calif. Fire Department, has been a career firefighter for 30 years and has seen it all. He has also seen the devastation that even the most well intended prank can cause to an agency and an entire community.

Cooper lectured on the topic of “Firehouse Pranks or Professionalism? The L.A. Story,” at the Fire Department Instructors Conference last week in Indianapolis.

“If you don’t think this kind of stuff is going on in your department, it is and you need to get in front of it so you can lead it and not have it lead you,” Cooper said.

Cooper said there’s a growing movement to demand zero tolerance in fire stations for hazing and pranks. When they do happen, no matter how innocent, it can cost millions in lawsuits and untold damage in morale and department pride.

“How much is a little hazing?” Cooper asked the audience, gathered in a large meeting room at the Indiana Convention Center. “How much hazing is acceptable as opposed to zero tolerance? A little hazing can lead to a $1.4 million lawsuit over someone eating dog food because it was just a little bit of hazing.”

Cooper was speaking of a huge lawsuit in L.A.City that touched off a racial divide in the city, unparalleled since the civil rights era.

It all started off innocently with a group of firefighters playing volley ball, Cooper said. One particularly large and powerful player was able to spike the ball over the net, easily defeating the opposition. The firefighter kept asking his colleagues to feed him the ball for another point. “Feed the dog,” Cooper said, repeating what the firefighter said. “Feed me, I’m the big dog.”

On the way back from the game, the firefighters, including the commanding captain at the time, stopped by a grocery store and bought a can of dog food, Cooper said. The prank quickly evolved from just leaving the can at his spot at the dinner table, to opening the can to let him get a whiff of the stuff, to actually putting it on a plate and letting him eat some.

“It was all a big joke,” Cooper said of the prank that got a little out of hand and led to the huge payout. He said the L.A. city firefighter was African-American, well liked and “an outstanding firefighter.” That firefighter “eventually” realized the action was wrong and filed the lawsuit in which he prevailed.

Another firefighter, an African-American woman who happened to be lesbian, was harassed mercilessly during her tenure at the department.

“Someone put urine in her mouthwash and thought that was funny,” Cooper said. The firefighter filed suit and successfully won a judgment for $6.2 million. More disturbingly, the woman was devastated that her career was ruined.

With a slideshow of headlines from around the country, Cooper illustrated pranks that had gone bad. For example, a rat in the locker of an African-American firefighter, a noose found near an FDNY firefighter’s belongings, a Jewish firefighter who had been “chaired,” a practice restraining firefighters to chairs and dumping the contents of refrigerators on them. The firefighters then wrote on the sheet used to protect his clothes a phrase: “Oy Vey, I’m Gay.”

“Is that just a little hazing?” Cooper asked of the illustrations he used. “This is a place of employment. This is a public facility. We’re all a family and I understand that. But in today’s environment a lot of stuff gets interpreted in different ways. The environment is too risky. Yet, people are still doing it. They say it’s part of the business.  OK. Good luck. If you do it, you’re going to get some of that,” he said pointing to the bad publicity headlines on the screen and the payouts accompanying them. “You had better deal with it or it will deal with you.”

Cooper said L.A.City has dealt with more than 30 lawsuits for pranks, hazing, discrimination and harassment, which have cost the fire department more than $10 million.

“The outcome is no one wins,” Cooper said. “Even if you win legally, no one wins because the amount of harm done to the person and to the department is irreversible.”

Cooper said it takes a conscious effort to overcome the urge for pranks and hurtful comments. He said there are just some things he won’t even dare think about, let alone utter.

“I fight my mind to not even think about it, even though I might want to say it,” Cooper said. “There are some things you just can’t joke about even though it might be funny. Who knows what it is going to bring up.”

In L.A., the dog food incident and the myriad of other similar lawsuits polarized the community and scarred the reputation of the fire department. A good chief lost his job and there were precious dollars spent on settlements, all because of a few jokes.

“It ain’t no big thing y’all,” Cooper said mimicking naysayers. “It’s just part of our culture.”

That may be, but it can no longer be tolerated, he said.

“We’re no longer loved as we normally were and people don’t hold us in as high regard as they once did,” Cooper said.

Cooper said L.A. revamped its organization from top to bottom to make sure the hostile work environment never happens again. Complaints involving Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) issues, or police and law enforcement issues, are investigated by top management and done so thoroughly and quickly.

Management receives quarterly training not only in operational topics, but in leadership and human relations.

“It’s an ongoing process and conversation,” he said.

To keep the troops happy and engaged when it comes to EEO issues and to avoid hostile workplace practices, Cooper said all stakeholders need to have a place at the table and to be heard.

“It involves everyone in the station,” Cooper said. “Some say it’s a labor issue, come on in to the table. Some say this is a gender issue, come on to the table. Some say it’s a black issue, come to the table. White firefighters are saying ‘who represents us,’ they need to come to the table too… The idea is to get everybody’s finger on the nut so when we cut the deal, everybody is going to get something, even if it’s just a little piece. Then they’ll have some ownership.”

In the end, it’s still a leadership issue, Cooper said, noting that officers have to step up and do their jobs.

“Do we have the moral courage to lead?” Cooper asked.  “…Then, brothers and sisters, we need to prove it and stand up and do the right thing.”