The Los Angeles Fire Department wants the City Council to give it an additional $50 million next fiscal year while the city faces a $200-million deficit. To deserve that, the department should show it's willing to shed some of its old habits and embrace new ideas that might make it more efficient.
It could start with its dispatch center. Los Angeles County has shown that non-sworn dispatchers can be effective and going to shorter work shifts could save millions. The city, however, continues to deploy sworn personnel — who often earn up to $30,000 more in base salary — for those jobs, and assigns them to 12-hour shifts. Partnering with Los Angeles County and Glendale dispatchers in a regional approach, a model similar to what's been in place in Orange County for years, could save the city untold sums after an initial, significant investment.
Historically, city leaders have turned to department heads, particularly in public safety operations, to tell the mayor and City Council what resources are needed to protect the public. But times are too tight to permit such deference. Moreover, multiple incidents showing poor judgment by Fire Department officials — including using data projections instead of actual results to allocate resources — have chipped away at the fire administration's credibility.
Numerous audits and outside reports have warned of poor discipline and called for new equipment; the department's leaders have failed to bring either to fruition. Fire officials have relied on inaccurate data regarding response times to emergencies and built budget requests on that faulty foundation. The leadership has often seemed more determined to appease the union that represents sworn personnel than to challenge the status quo.
The Fire Department has endured deep budget cuts since 2008, perhaps more than were warranted given how they have affected its response to emergencies. New resources may be justified and may help bolster the vital services that this agency performs. To deserve that money, however, the department needs to demonstrate that it will use it well.