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Times Investigation

Thousands of large L.A. buildings are long overdue for fire inspections

L.A.'s Fire Department has fallen behind in safety inspections of large buildings, a Times investigation finds

The Los Angeles Fire Department has fallen months and even years behind on safety inspections of thousands of large apartment buildings, schools, hotels, churches and other structures that it considers the greatest risks for loss of life in major fires, a Times investigation found.

The department is lagging on inspections for about 6,800 of the buildings — a third of the structures the LAFD classifies as a priority mainly because they're occupied by large numbers of people, according to documents obtained under the California Public Records Act.

Nearly half of those buildings were more than a year overdue for an inspector's visit as of last week, and 1 in 5 was overdue by two years or more, a Times analysis determined. In addition, thousands of smaller apartment buildings have never been inspected, in violation of a state law requiring annual checks of housing structures with three or more units, according to LAFD records and interviews.

The list of high-occupancy buildings overdue for inspection includes some at the massive Park La Brea apartment complex in Mid-Wilshire, Birmingham High School in Van Nuys and the historic Millennium Biltmore Hotel in downtown L.A.

For Park La Brea, home to more than 10,000 people, four of 18 residential towers are overdue for inspections. At one of the buildings, the LAFD had no records showing up-to-date fire-safety tests and certifications for elevators, emergency power generators and water systems.

Tenant representatives expressed surprise that the department had fallen behind on inspections.

"If there is a fire, you're going to have a huge problem," said Jason Green, a retired surgeon who is a leader of Renters United at Park La Brea. "Your life is at stake."

Park La Brea's residential services director did not respond to requests for comment.

Over the years, several fires have broken out at the complex, although no injuries were reported, according to the LAFD and news accounts.

The list of buildings overdue for inspections includes virtually every type of structure: movie theaters, yoga parlors, pet clinics, McDonald's restaurants, hair salons. Single-family homes are an exception; they are not required to undergo regular inspections.

Fire Chief Ralph M. Terrazas declined requests for an interview.

Deputy Chief John Vidovich, who oversees inspections, blamed the backlog on staffing cuts made during the recession, which resulted in the loss of 22 of the LAFD's roughly 150 inspectors.

Inspectors make sure sprinklers and smoke alarms work, fire extinguishers are filled, corridor doors close automatically to slow the spread of flames, and escape routes are well lighted and free of clutter.

The Fire Department is responsible for inspecting tens of thousands of buildings. Timetables for inspections vary from twice annually for larger apartments and hotels — with one performed at night — to every three years for smaller buildings where fewer people would be endangered by a fire.

LAFD Capt. Scott Miller, a department expert on the matter, said skipping inspections or missing deadlines is dangerous because safety equipment can quickly become faulty, threatening lives and making it tougher to fight fires.

"These buildings are very much like a battleship," Miller said. "If you're not fixing it, it's deteriorating."

The department initially declined The Times' request under the state open records law for a list of buildings overdue for inspection. Officials said flaws in the LAFD's computer databases made retrieving the addresses too difficult.

"There is no easy way to pull that data," Vidovich said earlier this month.

However, two department sources told The Times the addresses were readily available through simple searches on LAFD computers. One source demonstrated for a reporter how swiftly the addresses could be found, and provided hundreds of them in a matter of minutes.

After The Times confronted officials with its findings, the department provided the addresses.

One of the department's worst inspection rates is for schools and churches. As of the end of March, 62% of those buildings — 2,432 structures — were past the deadline for inspections, according to an internal LAFD report obtained by The Times. Those figures do not include schools and churches in the San Fernando Valley. In the category of Valley buildings covering schools and churches, 28% of inspections were overdue, the report shows.

The report is marked "for official use only, no release."

Some buildings at the 3,100-student Birmingham High — including classrooms — were nearly a year and a half overdue for inspections, other records show.

That was news to Karen Henderson, mother of a Birmingham High student and president of the parent-teacher organization. "These are the kinds of things you can't let slip," Henderson said.

In 2010, a fire damaged the high school's student store, LAFD records show. No injuries were reported.

Across town from Van Nuys, inspections were almost two years past due for the Westlake area's Our Lady of Loretto Catholic Church and its elementary school, according to the records.

"I would like to have it cleared up," said Father Hieu Tran, the pastor, after The Times informed him of the situation. "Not only for this church, but all the churches around L.A., for the safety of the people."

According to LAFD records, the Biltmore Hotel, which has hosted presidents, foreign dignitaries and rock stars, was due for inspection four months ago. Representatives of the hotel did not respond to requests for comment.

The LAFD was behind on inspections for 45% of hospitals, medical offices, nursing homes, jails and other buildings classified as "institutional" structures, according to the department records.

About 5,700 other buildings, most of them smaller, were overdue for inspections, the records show. That does not include the smaller residential buildings that have never had the annual inspections required by the state.

Vidovich and other officials said they did not know why the smaller buildings have gone without inspections, despite the state mandate in force for decades. "I can't really speak to that," Vidovich said.

State Fire Marshal Tonya Hoover said her office has limited power to enforce the inspection rules. "There would be nothing for me to do," Hoover said. "The state fire marshal doesn't have the authority to shut down the L.A. Fire Department."

LAFD officials acknowledged that the department's poor inspections record stretches back many years, even before the recessionary staff reductions.

A generation ago, LAFD leaders promised long-term fixes for the inspection program after a fire killed 10 people at an apartment building near downtown. An investigation of the 1993 tragedy discovered fire code violations that allowed flames to race through the structure. The Times subsequently reported that the department's inspections in the area were infrequent and spotty.

This April, after The Times first inquired about inspections, the department's chief deputy for emergency operations, Mario Rueda, sent a memo urging bureau commanders to step up the examinations.

Rueda's memo, which The Times obtained from sources, instructed the commanders to, "at a minimum," complete night inspections of larger apartments and hotels, which he labeled "one of the riskiest occupancies for loss of life due to fire."

The department brass also drafted a report making the case for the city Fire Commission to appeal for the hiring of more inspectors. The civilian oversight panel is scheduled to address the report at its meeting Tuesday.

paul.pringle@latimes.com

ben.welsh@latimes.com

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