By Rick Orlov Staff Writer
Posted: 08/28/2009 07:32:40 PM PDT

A veteran firefighter and outspoken critic of the bias and hazing that has dogged the Los Angeles Fire Department was named Friday by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to be the next fire chief.

Battalion Chief Millage Peaks, a graduate of California State University, Dominguez Hills, will become the second African-American to lead the 3,500-member department. He succeeds Douglas Barry, the agency's first black chief, who is retiring Monday.

"As humbled as I am to accept the job of chief, make no mistake, I will always be a firefighter first," said Peaks, 56, who joined the department in 1976.

Taking over amid testy union negotiations and steep budget cuts that have led to service reductions citywide, Peaks said the department will have to become more flexible to cope with the challenges ahead.

"We are faced with challenging times and to maintain our current level of service will require innovation," Peaks said at a City Hall news conference, where he was introduced by Villaraigosa. "We must reshape the business model to make us more responsive."

Reaching beyond the department's top command staff in his search for a new chief, Villaraigosa said it became clear during the selection process that Peaks was the right person for the job.

"He is a born leader and committed to what is needed in the Fire Department," the mayor said.

Acknowledging that he's experienced harassment and racism since joining the LAFD, Peaks said the department still needs to change despite concerted efforts at reform.

He said he is a fervent supporter of the "zero-tolerance" program ordered by Villaraigosa and implemented by Barry.

He has served as an employee relations officer on labor matters and was part of an investigative team created in 1995 after female recruits complained of mistreatment.

Peaks disputed that team's findings, saying he believed female firefighters had been mistreated by their colleagues.

Peaks also served as chief of staff to former Chief Bill Bamattre for one year and has held a variety of executive jobs within the department, including planning section commander, operations chief executive officer and, most recently, as battalion chief in the West Los Angeles area.

The LAFD has about 3,500 employees and an annual budget of $500 million. Peaks' salary has not been set, but the range for the job is $193,432 to $290,023.

For the past month, the department has been saving money by removing 87 firefighters from each day's duty roster. United Firefighters of Los Angeles City, the union representing firefighters, has sharply opposed these "rolling brownouts," placing ads in local newspapers claiming that residents' safety is being jeopardized by the force-reduction plan.

Villaraigosa and other city officials have decried the ads and characterized them as a scare tactic.

UFLAC President Pat McOsker lauded the nomination of Peaks, which still has to be confirmed by the City Council.

"The mayor's choice of Millage Peaks is a good one," McOsker said. "He has a tough job ahead of him, but he certainly has the kind of skills needed right now."

Peaks was born in Berkeley and raised in Southern California. He is married and has four adult children.