L.A.’s Scandal-Scarred Fire Department Has a New (Female) Chief. Here’s Why That Matters

Kristin Crowley promises to usher in a new, more inclusive era at the LAFD. But as Jon Regardie notes in his latest Cityside column, she’s not exactly a radical choice

On Tuesday, Jan. 18 at 6:31 a.m. PST, Mayor Eric Garcetti’s press office sent out an advisory that he and Council President Nury Martinez would soon make a “major announcement about leadership at the LAFD.” The specifics leaked and news that the Los Angeles Fire Department would get its first woman chief spread like, well, wildfire. By the time the parties stepped to the podium at the department’s training center a few minutes after 9 a.m., L.A.’s political and public safety worlds were already heralding the nomination of Kristin Crowley.

It’s a major move, and not just for the 3,435-person LAFD. Here is why the announcement matters so much to the city, and how it might ripple in the months ahead:

Where There’s Smoke…

The LAFD is one of the city’s most important and closely watched departments. And smoke had been rising in recent months as some women firefighters spoke out about ugly harassment and retaliation they had suffered at the hands of Stone Age male colleagues.

The situation ignited intense media scrutiny, and brought calls for the resignation of Chief Ralph Terrazas, with assertions that working conditions were unsafe for women and minority firefighters. When powerful entities such as the L.A. County Democratic Party joined the call for change, it was clear something would happen.

The Fire Future Is Female

Photo by Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Crowley was not nominated for the post because of gender. She ascended through the ranks in a 22-year career, and on the way became the LAFD’s first female Fire Marshall and just the second woman Chief Deputy. Terrazas is retiring in March and Crowley is getting the gig because she 100 percent deserves it and because top city leaders believe she can do the job and lead the troops. As Garcetti said at her introduction, “I look for who’s best, not just who makes history.”

That said, her nomination demonstrates change. Although 51.4 percent of city firefighters are now people of color, according to the LAFD, and 10 percent of the leadership ranks is female, less than four percent of department members are women. That figure is archaic.

Crowley’s ascension literally changes the face the department presents to the world. While boosting the number of women firefighters will take time, having her at the top of the ladder alters the message about who can join and who can climb.

A Garcetti Legacy Move

One could argue that even if Garcetti is about to skedaddle to India, he didn’t need to appoint a new chief. With Terrazas retiring, an interim chief could be installed, allowing the next mayor to select the permanent department head. Especially since Garcetti’s successor will have to work closely with the fire boss, and might want to make the choice.

Garcetti didn’t go this route, and instead made a move that will be part of his legacy. One shouldn’t be surprised—politicians love to pull “firsts” and make statement hires that demonstrate they are women or men of the moment. After all, in 2014 Garcetti hired the first Latino LAFD chief in Terrazas.

With one of his final big decisions, Garcetti has put a lasting change on the LAFD. He knows it.

Predicting Crowley

(Photo by Rachel Murray/Getty Images for MAKERS)

It’s hard to know what kind of leader Crowley will be. When she was introduced and answered reporters’ questions on Tuesday, she played it close to the vest and didn’t make the tiniest wave. It was hard to get a sense of her personality or if she has any ground-shaking inclinations.

“Our number one priority is to always remain operationally ready,” she said during prepared remarks, and later added, “My focus will be on maintaining and strengthening trust with the community.” She touched on organizations that represent Black, Latino and women firefighters and stated, “We will focus our efforts and enhance our work environment.”

Crowley referenced the firefighters union a couple times, and while she was understated, she was also professional and positive. In the future she will have to build and nurture relationships with a variety of officeholders and other players—Fire Chief may not be an elected position, but the job is incredibly political, and City Hall allies are needed.

Crowley will put her stamp on the department—that’s what chiefs do. But at this moment, it’s hard to know what that stamp will look like.

The Reign of Ralph

Terrazas, a 39-year LAFD vet, will exit his post with a number of successes, as well as some criticized moves. He restructured the LAFD into four bureaus, and oversaw a growth period following a lengthy department hiring freeze; more than half of the force joined after he took the top spot. Terrazas was in charge early in the pandemic as firefighters and paramedics were pressed into service to provide COVID tests and later vaccinations. Garcetti credited him for injecting new technologies into the LAFD.

He also steadied the department after a period of flux. Garcetti had forced out Terrazas’ predecessor, Brian Cummings, following a series of failures. The chief before that, Millage Peaks, announced his retirement less than two years after taking the post. The LAFD needed someone to right the ship—er, truck. Terrazas did that.

Like Crowley, Terrazas said all the right things at the announcement, remarking that he was grateful “to finish the last seven-plus years of my career as the fire chief. It was the pinnacle of my career.”

The Nury Influence

nury martinez city council president
Nury Martinez (center) at the Women’s March in 2017 (Photo by Jerritt Clark/Getty Images)

The announcement of Crowley’s nomination did not come from Garcetti alone; Nury Martinez was front and center.

Certain past L.A. mayors might have hogged the spotlight, but Garcetti involving Martinez so visibly was like handing her a mini-mayoral baton before he departs. The moment Garcetti steps down she will become the acting mayor (a post she already assumes every time he travels out of state). This was a high-profile announcement, and Martinez appeared in front of a lot of eyes who may only follow City Hall tangentially.

Get used to seeing Martinez at more high-profile events, and being publicly involved in other major decisions, before Garcetti leaves.

Easy Road

Nearly every mention of Crowley’s nomination contains some form of the phrase “if she is confirmed.” The “if” isn’t really in play. Unless there’s a scandal that the background checks missed, Crowley will speed through the confirmation process. Expect her City Council hearings to be even friendlier than the one Garcetti enjoyed when he appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for his ambassadorship.

This could be the slam dunkiest fire chief confirmation process in Los Angeles history—leading to a different kind of history.

Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.