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LAFD inspectors accuse supervisors of cutting corners, ignoring fire hazards

A group of senior Los Angeles Fire Department inspectors says the agency has put the public at risk by cutting corners in a frantic effort to clear a backlog of thousands of large buildings overdue for safety reviews.

In interviews with The Times, the inspectors said their superiors have hurriedly deployed inexperienced firefighters to the task of examining buildings and lowered the standards for structures to comply with fire codes.

The result, the inspectors say, is that apartment houses, hospitals, studios, high rises and other buildings across the city have been improperly declared safe.

“They are changing the definition of what a complete inspection is,” said Capt. Gary Carpenter, a Fire Department veteran of 26 years. “They are saying the inspection is complete, and the public thinks the building is safe. The building is not safe.”

In a statement Friday, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said the inspectors' complaints are the subject of an internal LAFD investigation and an independent inquiry by the city's civilian Fire Commission.

"I expect both to be completed thoroughly and promptly," Garcetti said. "Safety can never be compromised, and bureaucracy can never be an excuse for inaction." 

Fire Chief Ralph M. Terrazas and Fire Marshal John Vidovich, who oversees inspections, declined to be interviewed.

Terrazas said in a statement, however, that he could not comment on specific complaints by the inspectors because of the internal probe, but that his administration “takes these allegations seriously.”

The LAFD launched its drive to bring inspections up to date last year after a Times investigation found about 6,800 buildings were months or even years overdue for a safety review.

The department’s effort, named Operation Catch-up, included assigning more firefighters to serve as inspectors and an overhaul of the bureau responsible for ensuring that buildings meet city and state standards for sprinklers, alarms and other lifesaving equipment, officials said.

Inspectors have blamed the lag in building checks mainly on staffing shortages.

In a report released this month, Terrazas and Vidovich claimed to have cleared nearly all of the overdue inspections. 

But the inspectors who spoke to The Times said those numbers were bogus.

“That’s all fraudulent,” said Capt. Dave Riles, a 23-year veteran of the department. 

Many of the inspections that were counted as completed, Riles and others said, were performed by poorly trained firefighters who were pressured by supervisors to relax safety rules and overlook violations.

“They were told to put blinders on,” said Battalion Chief Jerome Boyd, the head of one of the LAFD’s largest inspection units. 

More than 100 firefighters recently voted in favor of a no-confidence resolution aimed at Vidovich, said Capt. Frank Lima, president of the firefighters’ union. “Operation Catch-up is a shell game,” Lima said. 

Half a dozen inspectors told The Times of schools, movie studios and hotels allowed to pass scrutiny even though they did not meet standards enforced in the past.

Inspector Aaron Walker said that when he visited St. John of God nursing home in Jefferson Park, he found that the operators lacked the required documentation that shows employees had been trained in what to do in case of a fire.

For that reason, Walker said, he intended to cite the property for a violation. He said he learned days later that another inspector had subsequently signed off on the building.

“This is putting the public in jeopardy,” said Walker, who has been an inspector for nearly 10 years. “Some little thing they overlook could turn into a big thing.”

An attorney for St. John said that her clients were unaware of the dispute over inspections, but that the property is in compliance with all safety codes. 

Former Inspector Carlos Gallegos, who retired this year after three decades with the LAFD, said he recommended that the city take legal action against the owners of a two-building commercial property near downtown for failing to correct several violations he found. But then another inspector visited the Alameda Street property, the location of film shoots, and cleared it, Gallegos said.

“They’re just trying to create numbers,” he said of Operation Catch-up. “It was clearly just a bean-counting operation.”

The Alameda property is owned by Forever 21 founder Do Won Chang and his wife, Jin Sook Chang. A spokeswoman for them said the structures have been inspected several times and passed. 

Gallegos said he had been told by his superiors to “be creative” in closing inspection cases quickly.

“That’s not the way I operate,” he said. “I’m not going to watch the news at night and see something go up in smoke that I inspected.”

The Times investigation last year found that the LAFD was lagging on inspections for a third of the structures it considers the most critical because they're occupied by large numbers of people.

Nearly half of them were more than a year overdue for an inspection. In addition, thousands of smaller apartment buildings had never been inspected, in violation of state law.

Meanwhile, a separate LAFD program for inspecting hazardous waste sites is also in disarray. 

Last year, state officials threatened to strip the department of the program after its inspectors failed to monitor hundreds of chemical factories, gas stations and laboratories where spills of dangerous materials could endanger the public.

John Paine, a California Environmental Protection Agency official, said the LAFD was unlikely to fix its problems without turning over many inspection duties to civilians.

The LAFD is one of the few departments in the state that still use firefighters as waste inspectors, Paine said. “We would like to see it completely civilian.”

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