Los Angeles Fire Department
Los Angeles SENTINEL, December 10, 2009
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Chief Millage Peaks attending the 9/11 Ceremony this year.
As a veteran fire fighter, Millage Peaks has worked his way through the ranks and has now emerged at the top of the department in an impressive 34-year career.
By Evan Barnes
One could say that being appointed as the next fire chief of Los Angeles was destined for Millage Peaks, although he never joined the Fire Department with those dreams.
"I was looking for stable employment, something that I could give back to the community," he said when he joined in 1976.
Almost 34 years later, the LAFD veteran is settling into the role of the city's top fireman after he was approved in September. He takes over for the city's first Black fire chief Douglas Barry, who retired August 30.
After joining the department, he was promoted to captain in 1984 and eight years later, was named Batallion Chief in South L.A. And in an exclusive interview with the Sentinel, the 57-year-old Peaks discussed the challenges he faces, race relations in the department today and how long he sees himself remaining as chief
LAS: How difficult it is coping with the budget cuts and the ability respond appropriately to emergencies
Chief Peaks: In the almost 34 years that I've been on the fire department, I've never seen it this bad. The City's budget is in such dire straits. Right now, we're being forced to close 15 companies a day. I've closed one battalion office and everyday I close three EMS captain offices. What it does is save $110,000 to $112,000 everyday--that's our portion of the shared sacrifice to balance the city's budget.
LAS: How much of an impact is that on your job?
Chief Peaks: Actually, with the budget cuts, I'm not closing any paramedic resources right now in terms of ambulances. With the closure of the hospitals--if someone has a heart attack in Watts and if there was an emergency or trauma center at Martin Luther King Hospital, the travel time and the distance would be much shorter. So now they are forced to go to Harbor General Hospital or come downtown to California Hospital, which takes away resources. If we had a hospital that was open in the community, serving that community, it makes our travel time shorter and doesn't take our resources out of their district any longer.
LAS: As a rule of thumb, is it the fire dept's position that you take a sick person to the nearest hospital period.
Chief Peaks: Typically, we take them to the facility that's going to be able to service their needs the greatest. If their condition is such that we can stqablize them on scene--and let's say they are a Kaiser patient--we will drive past another hospital to get them to their facility and their doctor because it makes their patient care so much better.
LAS: With the fire season past us and the rain this week, how does that impact your workload, especially with protecting potential flood victims.
Chief Peaks: One thing I thought I never would become as a fire chief is the weatherman. Every day I get up, the first thing I do is turn the weather report to see if it's going to be 110 or 45 degrees out, whether it's going to rain or the Santa Ana winds will blow. Every natural disaster that happened short of a volcano takes place in Los Angeles. It's up to me and the 3,600 firefighters and paramedics that protect the city to try and figure out what we need to do in order to manage depending on the weather conditions.
LAS: In your 33 years in the fire department and in light of the Tennie Pierce situation [Pierce won a lawsuit against department for a hazing incident some said was racially motivated], has the racial element of the department improved or has it stayed the same?
Chief Peaks: When I joined the fire department, there were 45 African-Americans out of 3,000 firefighters. The majority of them were World War II veterans so we were the first wave of the so-called affirmative action group that got hired. I am a product of affirmative action and I'm a believer that it does work because I'm a living example of that. Back then, we had a lot of White firefighters mostly from the South and East Coast so you ran into a lot of prejudice and bias. It was very overt--they let you know exactly how they felt. As time went on, these people retired and younger White firefighters came on to the department, it wasn't so overt but it became covert and subversive.
Now with this new generation, race doesn't seem to be as much an issue as it once was. In Tennie's situation, it was an isolated incident but because of Tennie's personality, I thought they would have shown him a lot more respect.
LAS: How does that reflect on the gender issues with women entering the department now.
"I have always been an advocate for women in the fire service. I think if you talk to most of the women in the fire department that do know me, they know that I support women in the fire service. During my tenure as fire chief I plan on doing everything that I can to recruit, hire, train and retain as many women as I possibly can. I'm a firm believer that they do belong in the fire service.
LAS: What will you tell the community about the fire department as it relates to you, encouraging young black men and women to become firefighters.
Chief Peaks: I think it's an outstanding career and an outstanding opportunity to give back to your community. To me, there is no greater joy in life than serving and giving.
LAS: How long do you see yourself remaining in the department and what will your legacy be.
Chief Peaks: I promised Mayor Villaraigosa that I would stay throughout the remainder of his term (3 1/2 years). If it ends up shorter or longer than that so be it but I did promise him that I would stay at least through the remainder.
I enjoy what I'm doing and I'm glad I took the job at this point in my life and in my career. The things I bring into the position is that I have the freedom to tell the truth and to do whatever is in the best interest of public safety and protecting the community. I don't have to kneel down to any politician and ask for their permission to say whatever comes to mind.
Peaks closed the interview by wanting the community to know that they are in good hands under his leadership.
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