Millage Peaks: L.A.’s New Fire Chief Works Toward a More Diverse Employee Profile for LAFD
Millage Peaks (Class of ’75, B.A., psychology) is a 33-year veteran of the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD), but as the new fire chief of just over two months, he says that he did not appreciate the enormity of his new post until he actually took it.
“You really don’t understand the responsibility and the weight of this position until you sit in this chair,” notes Peaks in his office overlooking downtown L.A. and the Santa Monica Mountains. “Dealing with serious budget problems that we’re having and being able to provide the level of fire protection and [emergency medical service] that the city needs and deserves despite the budget shortfalls has proven to be a real challenge.”
Another hurdle that Peaks faces is increasing the ranks of women in the LAFD. A self-described “affirmative action baby,” he says that he would not have been able to begin his career were it not for a consent decree mandating the hiring of African American and Hispanic males in the department during the early 1970s. Having been one of approximately 45 African American firefighters at the time he was hired in 1976, Peaks looks forward to increasing the number of women firefighters with the support of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the city’s personnel department. He says that the example of former Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton illustrates leadership’s challenge – and success – in diversifying the profile of public safety.
“If the chief believes that it’s important, then everyone else in the organization will think it’s important,” says Peaks. “Right now, out of approximately 3,600 sworn firefighters, we have a little over 100 women, which is only three percent. I believe that if I’m successful in communicating my message, then everyone will know that the mission is to change the complexion of our department and start bringing in women and people from diverse communities [so that we] start looking more like the community in which we serve.”
Peaks was born in Berkeley, where he and his family lived until he was 9 years old. They relocated to South Los Angeles, where Peaks attended Morningside High School. He began his college career at El Camino College in Torrance and the University of California, Los Angeles before transferring to California State University, Dominguez Hills to complete his bachelor’s degree.
“I was looking for a smaller classroom setting than the 500 students in a [typical] lecture hall,” says Peaks. “Dominguez Hills was a great educational experience for me. At that point in time when I really wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my life, it really gave me some structure. The professors I had there were incredible people. I thought it was a very outstanding environment in which to learn.”
Naming Quentin Stodola, emeritus professor of psychology, among his many mentors and role models, Peaks says that he regularly draws upon his training in psychology while on the job.
“The majority of what we do is through giving and comfort,” he says of being a firefighter. “When somebody loses a home, a family member, a friend, it all plays in to help manage the situation, to comfort the people, and to give them some love. I feel like I gained a lot of that through my experiences at Dominguez Hills.”
Peaks says that finding a mentor or role model is important for young men and women from diverse backgrounds who want to pursue a career in the LAFD.
“It’s really important that they learn as much about the career as they possibly can,” he says. “Once you get in the door, you ask the probing questions, look at what it’s all about. If they’re successful in completing the training and probation, they almost spend their entire lives in a career as a firefighter because it is rewarding.
“It’s very easy to fall in love with the career,” Peaks continues. “Our [job] turnover is almost zero. To be able to help somebody in need, to go into a situation that is totally chaotic and bring calm and reason, makes you feel good. And that’s what we seek to do on a daily basis.”
- Joanie Harmon