It seems unthinkable now, but Brian Cummings, the new Los Angeles Fire Chief, once had another career in mind.
“My father always encouraged us to pursue an education,” said Cummings. “He never encouraged me to be a firefighter. I wanted to be an electronic engineer. That was my goal.”
To that end, Cummings entered UCLA after graduating from Loyola High School, but after a while his destiny called and got the better of him. “As I got there, I started thinking about sitting at a desk and working in an office. It lost its appeal for me. I decided to become a firefighter.”
It was only right. His father, Louis Cummings Jr., had been a Los Angeles firefighter for 30 years, and had once served as president of the Stentorians, an organization of African American firemen who had joined together to fight racism. Beside that, Brian had known Arnett Hartsfield–the legendary “rookie” who had joined the Fire Department in 1940–since he was a boy. “All the African American firefighters back then knew each other,” he said.
Like his father, Cummings is a native son, born in Kaiser Sunset (hospital). He is the middle of seven kids–three brothers and three sisters. One brother, Lorenzo, is a fire captain in Harbor Gateway. He joined the department in 1989.
Asked what particular event as a fireman would characterize him, the chief struggled for a moment. “As firefighter, we have so many incidents that take place that are part of the job but have a big impact on people.”
But he remembered a fire in the city where both he and fireman (now battalion chief) Glenn Miyagishima were crawling on the floor through a burning structure and heard a sound in a room.
“We didn’t know whether it was a dog or a person,” said Cummings. “It turned out to be a person. It’s just part of doing the job. The most a heroic thing a firefighter does is to sign up to be a firefighter.”
As a firefighter, Cumming said, “My whole purpose for being there is to provide service–protect lives and property and to be of service to people in need.”
He spoke of the vastness of assignments and the territory Los Angeles firefighters have to cover, not all of it simply involving fires.
“We are the premier public safety organization in the world,” he said. “We cover 464 square miles of city, 170 miles of wild lands, a major mass transit system, railroad lines, a major port complex, the Los Angeles International Airport, a flood-control system that runs through the city.
“There are so many hazardous products transported through the city,” he said. “There are earthquakes and traffic accidents. We have five fire boats that protect the harbor and an air force of six helicopters. There are so many things that we do. Being in charge of this department is just an amazing honor.”
One of the most dangerous situation, he said, are oil refinery fires, because of potential for explosion.
Cummings was made interim chief on July 10 after Millage Peaks, who is also African American, retired after 22 months, saying the $54 million he had to trim from the budget during his tenure made for “one of the toughest years of my life.” Cummings had served as Peak’s chief of staff.
A substantial part of the thanks for the fire chief’s new job goes to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who appointed Cummings to the position over the recommendation of others. Asked why, Villaraigosa said: “I thought he demonstrated a coolness under fire during one of the toughest times in our department’s recent history. I thought he has a strength about him that is very very important for a job like this. He understands where we need to go in the future–the focus on technology and education.”
Cummings joined the department in February 1980 and has compiled 31 years of service. He has moved around quite a bit in a series of two-year jaunts in other areas. In 2003, he took command of Battalion 13. In 2005, he assumed command of the department’s Recruit Training section. In 2007, he took command of Battalion 6 and Battalion 1 in 2009 before leaving to serve as chief of staff to Peaks.
Today, it seems, the chief is happily resigned to his destiny.
“It’s amazing,” he said.