Los Angeles Has New Fire Chief

Douglas Barry has his work cut out for him as he dons the white helmet.


LOS ANGELES --

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa Tuesday named Douglas L. Barry the chief of the beleaguered Los Angeles Fire Department.

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Villaraigosa, who is believed to have been disappointed with the overall crop of candidates for the job, though not necessarily with Barry, announced his decision at a mid-day news conference at Fire Station 3 at 108 N. Fremont Ave.

"He is simply the right man at the right time to reform the Los Angeles Fire Department," the mayor said. "He is a firefighter to the core. He responds whenever and wherever he is called."

The appointment of Barry, who earns $258,000 in his interim post, still must be confirmed by the City Council. Approval would make Barry the city's first black fire chief.

"Since being appointed, steady progress has and will continue to be made toward lasting reform within the department," Barry said Tuesday. "The mission we have undetaken has not been completed."

He said a "momentum of change was being embraced" by department members.

Barry has led the Fire Department on an interim basis since former Chief William Bamattre stepped down Jan. 1 following the publication of audits that documented inappropriate behavior within the department, and fallout from a discrimination lawsuit stemming from a 2004 prank in which white firefighters fed dog food to a black colleague.

The mayor vetoed the City Council's $2.7 million settlement with firefighter Tennie Pierce, who claimed that he suffered discrimination and harassment when his fellow firefighters fed him the dog food at a Westchester fire station. The case is pending in court.

Last month, firefighter Brenda Lee won a $6.2 million jury award after claiming to have been discriminated against because of race, gender and sexual orientation.

Suits against the Fire Department have resulted in more than $11 million in jury awards over the last year, and the City Council was warned in a report Aug. 9 that claims against the department could endanger the city's budget.

Earlier this month, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission launched an investigation into allegations of widespread discrimination within the Fire Department. The EEOC has the power to require the city to pay complainants and to require the LAFD to take steps to correct the problem.

Barry had said when he took over as interim chief that he did not want the job on a permanent basis.

At the time, he also expressed confidence that "we can stop hazing and horseplay," adding: "I know that we can address the department's history of discrimination and exclusion, I know that we can build a department that looks like Los Angeles....

"And I firmly believe that we need to foster a culture of accountability at every level, including me, the fire chief."

The United Firefighters of Los Angeles City, Local 112, applauded Monday's appointment of Barry, a 32-year department veteran.

"If the last eight months with Chief Barry at the helm is any indication of how the LAFD will be led in the future, there is every reason to be extremely optimistic about Chief Barry being the permanent fire chief," said Union President Steve Tufts.

"Chief Barry recognizes that the LAFD is made up of strong, hard working women and men of integrity. It's my belief, and probably that of the vast majority of L.A.'s firefighters, that he is taking this job for them because he believes in them."

But in recent interviews with the Los Angeles Times, some captains and battalion chiefs faulted Barry for failing to shake up his command staff, which they said would have sent a forceful message that the department was committed to wholesale change.

"People are disappointed," said one veteran battalion chief quoted by The Times. "If you want to change this place, you need to start at the top."

Barry joined the department in 1975, working his way up the ranks as firefighter, engineer, battalion chief, chief of staff and assistant chief.

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