In the Hot Seat

The new chief of the L.A. city fire department is taking on the unions and the old-boy culture.

November/December 1996

Reading time min

In the Hot Seat

S. Peter Lopez

Sirens wail, tires screech, and the Fire Chief holds tight to his helmet as the gleaming red fire engine races toward the flames. That is the romantic childhood notion of the life of a big city fireman. Now, step into the real world of the Los Angeles city fire department and its recently appointed "Chief Engineer and General Manager," William Bamattre, '74.

The only helmets in Bamattre's unimposing offices on the 10th floor of City Hall East in downtown L.A. are wall-mounted souvenirs from departments in Belgium, Germany and Japan. The only time Bamattre now goes to firehouses is when he's invited to lunch, and the only blazes he rides to are major alarms. And then, usually, in a car.

That's because the 44-year-old chief, who learned to douse flames as a student firefighter at Stanford, is way too busy to actually fight fires these days.

Bamattre leads the fifth largest municipal force in the country, with 3,500 employees and an annual budget of more than $400 million. In addition to the daily fires, the department deals with earthquakes, terrorism, urban search and rescue, hazardous materials, fire prevention education and emergency medical services.

"We're kind of your panacea for any emergency," says Bamattre during a 10 a.m. interview--the middle of a workday that started at 5:30 a.m. and wouldn't end until 5:30 p.m. "When you don't know who to call, you call the fire department."

In April, the L.A. City Council called on Bamattre to replace Chief Donald O. Manning. The department was embroiled in an uproar over various charges of sexual harassment and a lack of attention to hiring and promoting women and minorities. Bamattre, with his genial-but-serious manner and the rock-solid build of a former athlete, seemed just the man to douse the political flames and guide the department into the 21st century. A 20-year veteran of the department, he is a conciliator by nature and nurture. He says he grew up listening to loud debates between his liberal Democrat father and staunch Republican mother.

Bamattre's biggest challenge is to change the old-boy culture of the department. "Our public acceptance is high," Bamattre says, pointing out the department's yeoman service in the 1990s during various L.A. riots, brushfires, earthquakes and floods. "But that doesn't give us a bye in terms of work-environment issues."

That environment is especially difficult for female firefighters who make up just 3 percent of the force--approximately 100 firefighters. Bamattre knows he has to do more than simply hire women; he has to change attitudes in what have traditionally been all-male clubhouses. "It's not a problem with our younger firefighters, but more with the older ones," Bamattre explains. "At least I've tried to acknowledge that we have problems. Before this, the department had a siege mentality."

Like new L.A. Police Chief Willie Williams, who has emphasized community-based policing, Bamattre wants to create a similar neighborhood-friendly role for firefighters, and decentralize operations by giving more power to the city's 16 battalion chiefs. He plans to bring back the days when a firefighter stayed at one station for much of his career (rather than rotating assignments every couple of years), and thus became well-known to neighborhood residents.

The changes are not welcomed by everyone. Many in the firefighters's union think that his plan for reorganizing the department could have an adverse impact on firemen and diminish public safety. "We did not support Bamattre in his bid for the permanent job," says Don Forrest, Secretary of United Firefighters of Los Angeles City (UFLAC) Local 112. Privately, some in the union go further and see him as Mayor Riordan's man. Ken Buzzell, president of UFLAC, says "Bill Bamattre really is a nice person. But as a fire chief . . . [the firemen] . . . don't think he has the backbone to stand up to the mayor."

Bamattre is aware of the depth of opposition to his agenda--but insists the changes are necessary. "L.A. now has so many different ethnic, social and economic pockets that we have to tailor our services to those specific groups," Bamattre says. "Our role has changed quite a bit."

Growing up in the Windsor Hills area of Los Angeles, Bamattre learned early about the diverse makeup of the city. His father was a milkman, and there were several fire stations on his route. But Bamattre didn't find himself drawn to the job until his first quarter at Stanford. That's when he quit an unpleasant dishwasher-loading job at Tresidder in favor of a work/ study position at the campus fire station.

Bamattre had planned to enter law school after graduation, but felt burned out and instead went off to Europe. When he returned to L.A., he applied for what he thought would be a short-term job as a firefighter. Unmarried at the time (he and wife Elizabeth wed in 1981), he soon made the department his life, working at stations around the city, doing a stint on a hazardous materials squad, driving an engine--all the time advancing up the promotional ladder.

Bamattre also went back to school to earn a master's degree in public administration from Cal State-Los Angeles and served a year as mayor of Dana Point, the newly incorporated Orange County town where he and his family lived until recently. That governing experience came in handy when the L.A. City Council looked for a chief who could not only lead firefighters and negotiate with their union, but relate daily with city bureaucrats, the mayor, council members and commissioners. "It was good exposure for me," says Bamattre of his Dana Point experience.

After a grueling budget fight earlier this year, the continuing seven-day-a-week demands to appear at parades and awards ceremonies--and the many daily operational duties--Bamattre admits he hasn't had time for much "fun." Nonetheless, he tries to squeeze out a few hours to coach his two sons (12 and 14) in Little League and give them the occasional ride on department fireboats and helicopters.

Bamattre clearly relishes his job running a complex, high-profile department. But he admits a certain longing for his days as a front-line firefighter--the chase, the speeding engines, the sirens, the danger and drama of rescue.

"I do miss it," he says, almost wistfully. "It's hard to explain to people, but other kinds of work sometimes seem so insignificant compared to the life and death situations we face. As human beings, we can't give life; but as a firefighter, I've had the chance to extend lives. And I miss that very much."

Michele Kort is senior editor of Living Fit and Fit Pregnancy magazines in Los Angeles.

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