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Video of Women in Fire Training Assailed : Personnel: Tape shows female recruits having trouble with physical tasks at academy while men do well. Los Angeles city officials call for inquiry into its making.

December 06, 1994|ROBERT J. LOPEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

City officials Monday called for an outside investigation of the Los Angeles City Fire Department to determine who produced and circulated an edited training video that critics say is intended to show that women are not tough enough for the grueling job of fighting fires.

The hourlong video--dubbed "female follies"--was made from footage shot in May, 1993, during training exercises at the Fire Academy. The tape, which has been shown at a number of fire stations, presents scene after scene of women having difficulty performing certain duties--spliced with occasional footage of men accomplishing similar tasks with little trouble.

Women who have seen the video and are pictured in it said the footage was shot by one of the lead training captains, who recorded both male and female recruits during the 10-hour course of each daily training session.

Angry city officials said Monday that the tape appears to have been made for the sole purpose of humiliating and ridiculing women, portraying them as incapable of handling vital tasks. They say the tape's existence demonstrates the kind of hostility women face daily in the 3,100-member force.

"It speaks to the very issue of institutional sexism," said City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who has viewed the tape. He said he plans to call for someone outside the Fire Department to determine who made the tape and how widely it has been distributed.

Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, who heads the council's Personnel Committee, said she also believes an investigation of the matter is warranted.

"In my opinion that tape is the essence of a hostile environment," Goldberg said she concluded after watching the video. "I have to tell you candidly, I was at first sad, then very angry."

Assistant Chief Dean E. Cathey, a department spokesman, said Monday that fire officials investigated the incident several weeks ago and concluded that there was no wrongdoing.

"The distribution of the tape appears to be an innocent attempt to provide (recruits) with video documentation (of their experiences) during the academy," said Cathey, explaining that it was made for the academy's graduation party. "The tape was not created to provide an atmosphere of intimidation or show any firefighters in a bad light."

Fire Commissioner Leslie Song Winner said Monday that she too had seen the video and feels an investigation is appropriate. "I was tremendously concerned and very disturbed," she said.

The video is the latest chapter in a growing controversy that has engulfed the Fire Department since the release last month of a harshly worded city audit of the agency's hiring and promotion practices. The Personnel Department study concluded that white males dominate the department's top posts and that women and minorities have been harassed and given unfair evaluations by supervisors, all in an effort to run them off the force.

The existence of the videotape was disclosed in the audit, which quoted a firefighter who said copies were floating around firehouses but did not mention how widely distributed they were or who made them. The firefighter referred to the video as "female follies."

Fire Chief Donald O. Manning has dismissed the audit's findings as the grumblings of a few anonymous firefighters and former employees. He has said he is proud of the department's record of hiring women, maintaining that his recruitment program for females is a national model and that the department has more female firefighters than any other force in the nation.

Eleven of the 28 female recruits in the class that was videotaped graduated and became members of the department. Yet the film fails to show any woman successfully completing any training exercise. Instead, it presents only negative images. In one scene, a female fire recruit--a chain saw slung over one shoulder and a 40-pound air bottle hanging dangerously on one side of her back--slowly climbs a 100-foot ladder. As she scales the top rung into the window of a building, an ax strapped to her waist gets caught in the rungs and she finds herself dangling, trying desperately to untangle herself.

In another scene, a female recruit, legs and arms trembling, lifts a heavy wooden ladder but falls to her knees as it crashes on her head.

In another sequence, a female recruit injures her left shoulder after lifting a wooden ladder. Grimacing in pain, she takes off her bulky protective coat and is attended to by two training instructors.

One shot shows several women, each decked out in bulky garb and wearing an air bottle and face mask, chopping away at thick wooden logs. Some of them appear so tired that they are not swinging their axes, but just letting them fall on the wood. A male training instructor is pictured apparently shouting at one of the women.

The footage moves to a large male firefighter, who cuts a thin log in half with a single powerful blow.

"Men made mistakes too," said Kay Harter, 22, a former recruit who is featured in some of the scenes and was booted from the academy. "They fell down, but they don't show that."

Harter said she thinks the purpose of the tape was "just to break us down."

She and other women then in training said it was their understanding that footage was being shot for a graduation video. But apparently the producer made more than one tape--one for the graduation ceremony that the women say showed positive highlights, and one for the boys.

Said Harter: "They made it to pass around and make fun of us."

Under Fire:* Times on Demand has assembled a package of four stories on the growing bias controversy in the Los Angeles Fire Department. To order, call 808-8463. Press *8630, select option 1 and order No. 5512. $4. Or you can find today's story plus the original reports on the controversy on the TimesLink on-line service.

Details on Times electronic services, B4

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