By Kate Linthicum, Robert J. Lopez and Ben Welsh, Los Angeles Times
9:14 PM PST, December 11, 2012
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said Tuesday that concerns raised by a top Fire Department commander about staffing changes at the agency's 911 call center need to be addressed before the proposal moves forward.
The plan backed by the mayor and city leaders would shift dispatchers from a 24-hour schedule to an eight-hour workday, a move that would save about $3.2 million annually. But a report by the commander who runs the dispatch center warned that public safety would be compromised if the plan were adopted before the agency replaced an aging computer system that has crashed repeatedly.
"Before we move ahead, we'll have to make sure we do so answering the questions that have been raised," Villaraigosa told The Times after attending a closed-door meeting with city officials to discuss the proposal.
The changes could reduce the number of dispatch center call takers as much as 20% to 40%, depending on the shift, according to interviews and internal LAFD records.
Fire Chief Brian Cummings, who attended the meeting, declined to discuss the staffing change, citing ongoing negotiations with the firefighters union. But any change will not compromise public safety, he said.
"We're going to make sure we have as safe and effective a dispatch system as we can," Cummings said.
In a June report to the chief, Assistant Chief Daniel McCarthy said making the staffing changes before new computer equipment is in place "would be a tragedy for those we are sworn to protect."
During a series of computer system crashes this year, dispatchers were forced to track the availability of rescue units manually, using golf tees and pegboards. In March, The Times reported that breakdowns delayed several responses, including one to a South Los Angeles structure fire in which two people died.
McCarthy said he is also concerned that the proposal will not provide enough dispatchers to handle sudden spikes in calls during major emergencies.
Villaraigosa said he was recently briefed on McCarthy's report. The mayor has included some $12 million for a new computer system in his budget for the current fiscal year. But officials have said they hope to make the dispatch center staffing changes by the end of January, and the department isn't expected to begin seeking bids for the new computer system until next spring.
Council President Herb Wesson, who was at Tuesday's meeting, suggested that the shape of the proposal could change. "I think there's got to be a little more conversation," he said.
The proposed staffing overhaul is a response to a court ruling last year that made the city liable for $8 million in unpaid dispatcher overtime. Some dispatchers filed a lawsuit seeking overtime wages the city hadn't paid.
The LAFD's dispatchers are firefighters, unlike the lower-paid civilians used to answer 911 calls at many other agencies. The city's dispatchers make an average of $95,700 a year in base salary and earn overtime pay working 56-hour-a-week schedules.
The expected savings from the staffing changes already are factored into this year's city spending plan. The LAFD's budget shortfall grows $266,000 each month implementation of the plan is delayed, according to City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana. The firefighters' union argues that the changes won't save the money promised and will leave the call center understaffed.
Frank Lima, president of United Firefighters of Los Angeles City, said his team is open to negotiations and developing a plan acceptable to all sides. "We'll try in good faith to do the best we can," Lima said.
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