Firefighters, Chief Differ on Effects of Cutback : Union Says Staff Reductions Could Cost Lives; Gardena Officials Cite Savings

Times Staff Writer

Six months after Fire Department manpower was reduced to save money, the city's fire chief says the change is a success but rank-and-file firefighters claim it could eventually cost lives.

Chief Andy E. Bero has repeatedly said that the cutback--which saved the city about $227,000 in the first six months--is "working out real well."

But Capt. Larry Edwards, president of the firefighters union, said fire losses this year already have exceeded last year's and that the cutback is partly responsible. And he warned of the potential for human injuries. "Maybe not today and maybe not this year," he said, "but until someone's hurt or killed, we're really not going to know."

The City Council voted unanimously in March to cut the minimum staffing level to 12 firefighters from 14 on all three 24-hour work shifts, a reduction of six slots, officials said.

'Cut the Fat Out'

Councilman James Cragin said the cutback was part of a citywide effort to reduce expenditures. With a $2-million decline in revenue from card clubs in recent years and the possibility of further cutbacks in federal money, Cragin said, "the council told the city manager to try as hard as you can to cut the fat out of anything."

At least 12 firefighters are required to be on duty out of the 16 assigned to each shift. If staffing falls below the minimum as a result of vacations, sick time or injury leave, unscheduled firemen would have to be called in and paid overtime, Bero said.

Before the change, 18 firefighters were assigned to each shift and at least 14 had to be on duty.

The size of Gardena's fire companies was also affected by the cutback. The department's three four-man companies were each reduced to three men. Bero defended that change, comparing Gardena to Hawthorne which also uses three-man companies. Compton also uses three-man companies, while Inglewood and Torrance use four-man companies.

'No Statistical Evidence'

"There is no statistical evidence of adverse effects created by using the 12-man minimum concept," Bero said last month in a report to City Manager Kenneth Landau.

Firefighters, however, argue that the cutback has ramifications that have not yet been felt--including the possibility of needless deaths.

"Common sense tells us that 12 people cannot do the same work as 14 can," Edwards said. He said the risk would be greatest if the three-man company from the small No. 2 station in north Gardena were to be the first to arrive at a fire in which a victim is trapped. A three-man system allows for one firefighter at the fire hydrant, an engineer at the controls of the truck and a captain to monitor the fire, Edwards said. "As it stands now, we can't risk the fire captain to go in there for rescues."

Another three-man company, a two-man rescue team and a platoon commander would probably be dispatched simultaneously from the city's main fire station, Edwards acknowledged, but he added: "The danger is in the time delay. By the time the truck company and the rescue squad get there, we have a four- to five-minute delay. One extra guy initially when the call comes in is a big help. It gives us one other guy to effect rescue and possibly save a life."

Losses Greater

But Bero, a 30-year veteran who has been Gardena's chief for the last nine years, said the reduction has not affected the department's ability to fight fires even though 1985 fire losses through September are $638,200 compared to $598,000 in all of 1984.

"You can't really equate the number of men at the fire scene with the amount of loss because it depends on what's burning and how much is gone before you get there," Bero said. "That one statistic does not prove that the fire losses were because of the lowered manning."

He said Gardena had two large fires this year, with damage totaling $150,000 and $481,000. At east 20 firefighters responded to each of those fires, Bero said.

Bero noted that in December, 1981--when fire losses were $1.36 million, the highest in the past five years--the city had 14 men on duty and 13 assisting from other agencies, adding that the extra manpower did not prevent the losses.

Salary Savings

He also pointed to the $227,000 savings to Gardena taxpayers since he made the switch. Of that amount, $58,740 was saved in overtime pay and $168,000 in salaries and benefits for the six eliminated slots, he said. The slots were eliminated by attrition.

Hawthorne's fire chief, Ralph Hardin, said that his department has historically run three-man companies. ,"Three-man companies are not that unusual," he said. "We find that three-man companies have drawbacks, but we certainly have not had any experience that would indicate it is really unsafe."

He acknowledged the problem cited by Edwards. "You end up with a captain as the only man to do anything," he said. "But we haven't found any instances where people were jeopardized.'

The Los Angeles Insurance Services Office, which evaluates fire departments for insurance purposes, last graded Gardena as having a public protection classification of 4, based on a scale of 1 through 10 with 1 being the best grade. Hawthorne was graded a 3, Torrance a 2 and Inglewood a 1.

A portion of the insurance office grade is based on manning levels, distribution of stations, training and equipment, said Mike Di Rienzo, assistant manager of the office's operation center in Los Angeles. He said a lower grade generally reduces the overall insurance rate, but "there isn't automatic improvement in rate when you go from one grade to the next."

No Confidence Vote

Edwards said that at the time of the cutback in March, the firemen's association took a vote of "no confidence" against the chief, and asked the City Council to look into problems in the department in a formal grievance. He said the council decided not to act on the grievance.

Councilman Cragin said the council decided "to ignore it. We did not agree with them. All five members of the council have 100% confidence in the chief. This was just a ploy by them to put us on the defensive so that we wouldn't take away their overtime pay."

Edwards denied that loss of overtime was a factor in the union's opposition to the change.

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