Los Angeles city officials moved quickly Tuesday to revamp the Fire Department’s broken inspection program and begin tackling thousands of overdue safety checks of big apartment buildings, schools, churches, hotels and other structures where the greatest number of lives would be endangered in fires.
After The Times reported that the department was months and even years behind on inspections, the civilian Fire Commission approved a plan to boost the number of inspectors and reorganize the bureau responsible for ensuring that large buildings meet city and state standards for sprinklers, alarms and other lifesaving equipment.
At the same time, two leaders of the City Council’s public safety committee directed the Los Angeles Fire Department to report to the panel on efforts to overhaul the inspection system. The lawmakers said the LAFD should consider bringing in help from the county Fire Department or asking retired inspectors to return to work.
“The first responsibility of the LAFD isn’t to put out the fire; it is to prevent the fire from happening in the first place,” Councilman Mitchell Englander said. “This inspection backlog puts lives across the city at risk, and the department must work to address this issue and take all steps necessary to eliminate this backlog.”
LAFD officials are scheduled to address the council committee next week.
Fire Chief Ralph M. Terrazas, appointed last year by Mayor Eric Garcetti with a mandate to reform the department, blamed the overdue inspections on budget cuts dating to the recession. “This issue has been created over multiple years,” Terrazas said. “It will not be fixed overnight.”
Terrazas spoke as the Fire Commission, a panel of mayoral appointees who oversee the department, voted 5 to 0 to add eight inspectors to LAFD’s Fire Prevention Bureau. The bureau now has about 130 inspectors.
“We are a long way from where we need to be,” said Commissioner Steven Fazio, a businessman from the San Fernando Valley. “We're not happy about it, but we know we’re on the move to get to where we want to go.”
The LAFD official who oversees inspections, Fire Marshal John Vidovich, told the commission, “Our internal audits found the same issues as in the L.A. Times article. Until we fix these issues, we will not be as efficient as we should be.
“It is my personal goal as the fire marshal to make sure every building in the city of Los Angeles is inspected in a timely manner,” he said.
Garcetti said he and LAFD leaders were working to improve the department’s performance on inspections. “I want to assure Angelenos that the LAFD is working hard to prevent fires as well as put them out,” he said in a statement.
The mayor said he was proud that the number of fatalities in building fires had declined: to six so far this year, compared with 13 at the same point in 2014.
The Times’ investigation found that about 6,800 buildings the LAFD classifies as a top priority, mainly because they're occupied by large numbers of people, were overdue for inspection.
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, according to a Times analysis of LAFD records. 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.
In addition, thousands of smaller apartment buildings have never been inspected, in violation of a long-standing state law requiring annual checks of housing structures with three or more units, according to LAFD records and interviews.
Terrazas and other LAFD officials said they did not know why the department failed to inspect the smaller buildings. The chief said the department lacked the staffing to catch up on those inspections.
“We don't have enough people to do that,” he said. “That’s something we have to take a hard look at because it's not the best use of our resources.”
Terrazas said the LAFD hoped the city’s housing department would shoulder more of the inspection load. Housing inspectors are required to examine the smaller buildings every three years, including for compliance with some fire safety codes.
Timetables for LAFD inspections vary from twice annually for larger apartments and hotels — with one performed at night — to every three years for smaller buildings.
The department initially declined a 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.
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.
Terrazas said the LAFD’s delay in releasing the addresses resulted from a miscommunication.
“My position is we should be transparent,” he said. “These are all public records.”