LAFD fire marshal steps down after criticism that he cut corners on safety

The Los Angeles Fire Department is replacing the official in charge of enforcing fire safety codes for apartment houses, schools, hospitals and other high-occupancy buildings after months of turmoil over lengthy backlogs in inspections.

Fire Marshal John Vidovich  leaves one of the LAFD’s top jobs barely two years into his tenure, a term marked by embarrassing disclosures about delinquent inspections and mounting criticism from the firefighters' labor union. 

Last year, he pledged to reform the agency’s Fire Prevention Bureau after a Times investigation found that about 6,800 buildings were months or even years overdue for an inspection.

But several senior inspectors later told The Times that, under Vidovich, the bureau put the public at risk by requiring them to cut corners on safety reviews in a frantic drive to clear the backlog. 

Fire Chief Ralph M. Terrazas said in a staff memo that  Vidovich will step down next month and be assigned to the mayor’s office in an advisory position focused on new construction. A Fire Department spokesman said Vidovich intends to retire in May.

The union that represents inspectors and other firefighters earlier this year voted to approve a resolution of “no confidence” in Vidovich. Before the 3,100-firefighter department decided to replace Vidovich, the union, a powerful player at City Hall, was preparing to pressure Mayor Eric Garcetti and other elected officials to oust him.

"We're very happy," said Capt. Frank Lima, president of United Firefighters of Los Angeles City. "We had been talking about doing something, but then he got moved."

Through a department spokesman, Vidovich and Terrazas declined interview requests. In a written statement, Terrazas said Vidovich will play a “critical role” in helping Garcetti’s office streamline the construction review process, in addition to expanding safety regulations for abandoned oil and gas wells.

Lima said he had met with political strategists to develop a plan to unseat Vidovich. With Vidovich heading out the door, Lima said, the union remains comfortable with its earlier decision to back Garcetti in his upcoming reelection bid. 

“We’re with him,” Lima said.

In 2013, when Garcetti won the mayor’s office, the union supported his opponent, then-City Controller Wendy Greuel. 

Spokesmen for Garcetti declined to answer specific questions about Vidovich's departure or did not respond to interview requests. Deputy Mayor Jeff Gorell said in a statement that Vidovich will “complement” the office’s efforts to improve public safety.

The 2015 Times investigation found that the LAFD was lagging on inspections for a third of the buildings it considers the greatest safety risk because they're occupied by large numbers of people. Nearly half of them were more than a year overdue for an inspection of their sprinklers, alarms and other life-saving equipment. 

In addition, thousands of smaller apartment buildings had never been inspected, in violation of state law. Inspectors mainly blamed staffing shortages. 

The department subsequently launched what it called Operation Catch-up, assigning more firefighters to serve as inspectors. 

In a recent report, Terrazas and Vidovich said that nearly all of the overdue inspections had been cleared. 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 coaxed by supervisors to relax safety rules and overlook violations.

The result, the inspectors said, is that buildings across the city have been improperly declared safe.

In response to those complaints, Garcetti said in a statement that “safety can never be compromised, and bureaucracy can never be an excuse for inaction.”

Inspectors responsible for ensuring that brush is cut back from homes also have complained about the department's efforts to speed up the task. Terrazas has said many of the complaints are rooted in the brush inspectors' slow embrace of new technology.

Vidovich, whose total compensation was about $236,000 in the last fiscal year, was previously the agency's chief of staff. A department veteran of more than three decades, he also holds the rank of deputy chief.

Assistant Chief Kristin Crowley will become acting fire marshal next month. Department spokesman Peter Sanders said Crowley will be promoted to the job permanently once Vidovich retires. 

Crowley is the first woman named to the post. Sanders said she was not available for an interview. 

paul.pringle@latimes.com | Twitter: @PringleLATimes

ben.welsh@latimes.com | Twitter: @palewire

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