January 22, 2015
The city of Los Angeles should revise its hiring process for firefighters in ways that increase diversity among highly-competitive applicants, minimize processing demands on the city and create greater transparency for applicants in minimum qualifications and selection criteria, according to a new RAND Corporation study.
Among the specific recommendations are initiating a citywide outreach campaign to target highly-qualified minority and female applicants, replacing the entry-level firefighter exam with tests developed and validated by external vendors, and conducting electronic background checks of applicants early in the review process.
“While many aspects of the department's selection process are consistent with best practice in personnel selection, there still are elements that can be improved,” said Chaitra Hardison, lead author of the report and a senior behavioral scientist at RAND. “Some of our suggested changes are intended to reduce processing time and costs to both the city and applicants.
“In addition, the city needs to engage in a long-term evaluation to demonstrate that its hiring criteria accurately predict who will be a high-performing firefighter in the future. Additional effort also is needed to look for alternative selection criteria that may do a better job of predicting future job performance.”
RAND was hired by city officials in April to examine the Los Angeles Fire Department's hiring process after criticism was directed at the department's recruiting of new firefighters, which had been restarted following a five-year hiring freeze. Critics alleged the selection criteria lacked transparency and that the process appeared to favor applicants with connections to current Los Angeles firefighters.
RAND researchers examined the fire department's recruiting and outreach efforts, reviewed the selection process, identified key duties and qualifications of firefighters, and conducted a statistical analysis to examine the impact of the existing selection process on the demographic diversity of applicants. The study was done over three months and a draft was delivered to city officials on schedule at the end of July. Public release was delayed pending review and comment by city officials.
RAND was not asked to analyze changes to the firefighter hiring process made by the city in July, when it reopened the process to recruit a new class for the training academy.
The RAND report highlights a broader set of changes for the city to consider going forward. Researchers recommend a new hiring process that collapses steps from the old system and focuses on identifying competitive applicants earlier in the process. This would improve efficiency and save resources for both the city and applicants.
In addition to a more-targeted outreach and recruiting campaign, the RAND report recommends that additional minimum background qualifications be established and clearly posted on the fire department's recruiting website.
The report discusses options for reducing the number of applicants to a manageable size early in the process. Because so many people apply for openings in the fire department, it would be too difficult to allow all minimally qualified applicants to move through the entire process.
One option is to use a ranking system that selects those who perform better on aptitude tests. Such a merit-based system might be applied along with targeted recruiting aimed at attracting minority applications who are likely to be highly competitive on the aptitude test.
Another option is to have a lottery where applicants are randomly selected for a chance to continue to the next stage in the screening process, an approach RAND examined at the city's request.
“The changes we recommend should help the city identify a diverse set of qualified recruits for each class that enters the fire academy,” said Nelson Lim, co-author of the report and a senior social scientist at RAND.
The report, “Recommendations for Improving the Recruiting and Hiring of Los Angeles Firefighters,” is available at www.rand.org.
The project was conducted within the RAND Safety and Justice Program, which conducts public policy research on corrections, policing, public safety and occupational safety.