First black picked as county fire chief
February 23, 2011
In a historic choice, the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday announced that it has selected Daryl Osby as the next chief of the Los Angeles County Fire Department, making him the first African American to hold that position in an agency that had been slow to integrate.
Osby, a 27-year veteran of the department—and the son of a career firefighter who led fire departments in Inglewood, San Jose, San Diego and Oceanside—will assume the top job next month after the retirement of long-serving chief P. Michael Freeman.
Most recently, Osby, 49, has been in charge of the department’s business operations. He also has worked as the top commander of fire operations for a number of major incidents in recent years, including the massive fire siege in 2003, the 2005 Topanga Fire and the 2008 Wildland Fires. He also spent 18 days in Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina helping to manage recovery efforts there.
“I’m shocked but excited,” Osby said when reached in a meeting moments after the announcement of his appointment. “It’s emotional. It’s awesome to think that the board has the confidence in me to replace Chief Freeman, who has led this department for more than two decades.”
He said he was profoundly aware of the milestone his appointment represented.
“I think it’s important to understand the sacrifices not just of African Americans, but of all people who pave the way,” Osby said. “I’m excited to be the first African American, but above and beyond that, I think the board chose me because they felt I was the best candidate for the position. First and foremost, I’ve just tried to be the best individual and the best member of the fire service that I could be.”
Osby was chosen from a short list of finalists comprised entirely of department veterans. Freeman—who worked for 24 years in the Dallas Fire Department before coming to Los Angeles—has said in interviews that one of his biggest challenges was the “steep learning curve” he faced as an outsider. He suggested that the county might do well to hire its next chief from within to oversee the department, which has a budget of some $923 million and a service area roughly the size of Delaware.
Osby’s elevation is significant for a department in which diversity issues—including the recruitment and treatment of women—has been a concern.
Although the city of Los Angeles’ fire department has had black firefighters since the late 1800s, the county didn’t hire its first African American firefighter until 1953, and didn’t promote a black until the mid-1970s, after a discrimination lawsuit began to progress toward the U.S. Supreme Court. The hiring rendered the case moot by the time the high court heard it.
Today, diversity advocates within the department note that while the department has hired more than 1,000 firefighters during the past decade, only about 50 of them have been African American.
His appointment also represents a kind of continuity, however.
Born in the San Diego County community of National City, Osby is the son of a veteran fire chief. His father, Robert, was in the fire service for more than four decades before retiring as Oceanside’s first black fire chief in 2005.
The younger Osby joined the Los Angeles County Fire Department at the age of 23 in 1984 as a firefighter and paramedic. He rose steadily through the ranks, gaining experience in virtually every aspect of the department’s firefighting and internal operations.
By 2000, he was an assistant fire chief in charge of community services, public information and executive planning. The following year, he was promoted again to oversee emergency service, personnel, training and budget issues for 76 fire stations in more than 30 unincorporated areas. In 2008, he became chief deputy, initially oveseeing the county’s emergency operations and later taking responsibility for the department’s business operations, including employee relations and financial management.
That experience is expected to be crucial as the department—like the rest of county government—grapples with massive cuts in the state budget and a proposed “realignment” of responsibility and funding.
“Budget-wise, our priority is going to be that we have a sound financial plan and not have our spending exceed our revenues,” said Osby. “We’ve worked hard here to find efficiencies and work smarter, and we’ll continue that.” Among the department’s challenges, he added, would be the need to update the its infrastructure and address a number of pressing construction issues “while trying to maintain efficiencies and not have it impact public service.”
And, said Osby, the father of two daughters, diversity would continue to be a priority, in gender as well as ethnicity. Only about 1 percent of the department’s firefighters are women, for example, and Osby said one of his first jobs will be to “sit down with all our stakeholders and come up with a strategic approach.”
“We need to look at strategies to ensure we have proper outreach to let people know that this is a career for everyone,” he said. “Some people still don’t see that. And we need to break down those barriers.”