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Transfer of Pomona Fire Service Brings Charges, Demotions : Jobs: Eleven people lost titles in shift to county. Changes also brought better equipment and renewed bias allegations.

August 04, 1994|DEBORAH SULLIVAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The controversial transfer of Pomona's fire services to the county's Fire Department last week brought a hodgepodge of scattered demotions, better firefighting equipment and renewed allegations of racial and sexual discrimination in the department.

Starting at 8 a.m. on July 28, the 100-year-old Pomona Fire Department ceased to exist and became one of 15 battalions of the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

The transfer will save the city up to $2 million in its annual budget of about $14 million, former Chief John Parker said. It introduces state-of-the-art technology, adds squads of paramedics to the force and places the county's staffing and resources at Pomona's fingertips.

But it also brought the demotion of 11 employees, including Parker, whose title dropped from chief to battalion chief as the department came under the wing of the county.

"It's a little sad for me," Parker said of the transfer. "But it's a change for the better. . . . Hopefully the citizens will receive a higher level of service at a lower cost."

Through the transfer, the department gained more sophisticated equipment, including mobile data terminals--minicomputers installed in the fire engines that allow more efficient communication than two-way radios. In addition, Pomona now has access to county air services for water drops and transport of injury victims to hospitals, said Stephen Alexander, who is now chief of the 15th battalion and, despite the similarity of the two men's titles, is Parker's new boss.

Two pairs of paramedics joined the force to help with medical emergencies, which make up an increasing percentage of the department's calls. Firefighters also have the option of receiving paramedic training, and several already have applied for classes, Alexander said. And the squads, which were previously oriented toward fighting structure fires, were trained to fight brush blazes during several months of preparation for the changeover.

Emergency 911 calls will now go to the county dispatch center in Los Angeles. Department spokesman Steve Valenzuela said the average response time of four to five minutes should remain the same, and may be slightly quicker for outlying areas, since county firefighters can be called in from surrounding cities such as Walnut, Diamond Bar and San Dimas.

In the course of the transfer, all members of the Pomona Fire Department kept jobs with the county, but shifting job responsibilities resulted in the demotions for a handful of people.

"It's sad. We've got some really qualified people," said Capt. Bill Travis of Station 185. Two captains at his station dropped in rank to firefighter and engineer. "It's unfair, in my opinion, but we'll have to live with it. We've got a real strong crew."

Even Battalion Chief Parker is now among the crews going out on emergency calls. Parker has been in fire service nearly 30 years and moved to Pomona 3 1/2 years ago from Peoria, Ill., where he was fire chief. After spending the last decade in administrative posts, getting back on the engine is a challenge, he said.

"I'm a little bit nervous," he conceded. "It's going to be a very big change for me."

Alexander said pay levels for those who dropped in rank will remain the same, and they will be eligible for raises and promotions from the county.

Seven dispatchers, though, were not included in the transfer. All were reassigned to full-time positions with the city, some of which may involve pay cuts after six months.

While the transfer, by all accounts, went smoothly, the decision that led to it was fraught with controversy over accusations that the Pomona department discriminated against women and minorities.

In response to a complaint by the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People on that issue, the City Council decided to determine rank in the new department based on the total number of years served in the Pomona Fire Department, rather than years served in a particular rank, said Jose Mesa, city personnel manager.

That meant that many minority members of the force, who had served many years in the department but only a short time in a higher rank, would retain their rank, he explained. Other department members who had served fewer years in the department but were promoted quickly and spent more time in a higher rank dropped down.

Despite that concession, a lawsuit filed just a week and a half before the transfer challenged the department's record on hiring women and minorities. Lydia Cook and Terrie Owens, two African American women who applied to the department six years ago, filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court on July 19 to block the transfer.

Their attorney, Leo James Terrell, said the department ignored a 1989 agreement requiring it to hire women and minorities, and attempted to shirk that responsibility by transferring authority to the county.

"That's totally untrue," said City Atty. Arnold Alvarez-Glasman. "The transfer was a proper and appropriate action by the City Council."

Mesa conceded that the Pomona Fire Department has never hired a woman firefighter, but he said it stepped up efforts to recruit minorities after the 1989 settlement. Since that time, he said, the ethnic breakdown of new hires has been 44% white, 28% African-American and 28% Latino. The current composition of the Pomona Battalion is 76% white, 10% African-American and 14% Latino.

Terrell said the court denied his request for a temporary restraining order against the transfer, but he will file for a preliminary injunction this week, asking the court to hear the women's case.

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