By Kate Linthicum, David Zahniser and Ben Welsh, Los Angeles Times
7:50 PM PDT, May 7, 2013
The Los Angeles City Council voted Tuesday to provide $1.6 million to reverse a controversial new staffing plan at the Fire Department, handing a victory to the employee union that had branded it as unsafe.
Over the weekend, the department began shifting 22 firefighters a day from engines to ambulances as part of a plan to improve response times and address an increase in 911 medical calls. On a 12-0 vote, the council provided the money needed to add 11 ambulances to the agency's fleet through June 30 while keeping fire engines fully staffed.
Groups representing firefighters and the department's chief officers vigorously fought the redeployment, saying it put rescuers and the public at risk and had not been properly researched. "A plan is when you sit down with people and write things out," firefighters union President Frank Lima told the council. "We don't call it a plan. We call it the fire chief's dangerous experiment."
Lima described the council's decision as the first step in a larger battle to restore Fire Department funding to pre-recession levels after years of cuts.
Tuesday's vote comes as Lima's union, United Firefighters of Los Angeles Local 112, is asking members to double their dues to pay for political campaigns. In a video posted last week on YouTube, union leaders said a bigger campaign war chest would help protect firefighter retirement benefits that are "under siege."
Union leaders want firefighters to pay $38 per paycheck in dues, up from $19. That money would go to the group's political action committee, which weighs in on elections, and sends "a tremendous message" to City Hall, Lima said in the video. "It's about strength and fear, and we need to be strong right now," Lima said.
In the video, former union president Steve Tufts said elected officials will take note if the union amasses a "substantial" sum in its PAC. "If politicians see it, now we're relevant. Now they want to be our friend," he said.
In this year's city election, the union has made $425,000 in independent expenditures — campaign donations that don't have to abide by city contribution limits. Most of it has gone to support mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel.
Councilman Bernard C. Parks said he could not imagine the union getting a tighter grip on his colleagues. "They have people here doing somersaults now," he said.
Parks voted to give the money to staff ambulances through June, but he warned that the council should not give Fire Chief Brian Cummings "false hope" unless it is prepared to cover the staffing costs for a full year. That cost could reach $13 million.
Councilman Paul Krekorian, who heads the committee that vets the budget, said he couldn't commit to providing a full year's funding but pledged to work to restore some money to the department.
The vote drew praise from Greuel, who criticized her opponent — City Councilman Eric Garcetti — for backing previous cuts to the department's budget and for missing Tuesday's vote. "We can't trust him to keep our communities safe," she said in a statement.
Garcetti spokesman Jeff Millman called Greuel's statement "shameless" and pointed out that she backed reductions to the department in 2009, while she was on the council. Garcetti supports Tuesday's council decision, he added.
The $1.6 million provided by the council will pay for overtime costs to staff the ambulances and the engines. Cummings said that on days the agency cannot find enough volunteers to work overtime, he will staff the ambulances instead of fully staffing the firetrucks.
"I'm staffing for the community need, which is ambulances," he said.
The department's data operation has been under scrutiny since early last year, when fire officials admitted to publishing response times that made it appear rescuers arrived at emergencies faster than they actually did. A task force of experts examined the department's data and found that fire officials responsible for crunching the numbers were poorly qualified and that analysis from previous years "should not be relied upon."
Cummings has said the problems have been fixed and the new analysis underpinning the ambulance shift is trustworthy. He rebuffed requests to present a thorough report on the analysis before making the staffing changes. The chief is scheduled to provide more information at the next city Fire Commission hearing May 21.
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