Fire Department Services Cut to Meet Budget Crisis

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Facing the largest budget crisis in its history, the Los Angeles Fire Department on Thursday announced a slash in services that will remove 13 engine and truck companies and six paramedic ambulances from its daily firefighting force.

Donald O. Manning, the department's chief engineer and general manager, bluntly warned that the cost-saving program, scheduled to begin July 1, will result in delayed response times, bigger fires, more property damage and increased risk to human life.

"These budget cuts are going to cut into the muscle of our organization," Manning told reporters after informing the Board of Fire Commissioners of the program. "We're cutting muscle. I hope we're not breaking bones."

To meet a $23.4-million cutback ordered by the City Council, the department intends to reduce fire and emergency medical services on a rotating basis at 46 fire stations throughout the city, Manning said.

Only stations with both an engine and truck company on the premises will be subject to the "rolling brownout" program that will reassign their personnel to vacancies elsewhere for nine-day periods once a month, he said.

If a station's only units already are responding to an emergency, the call will be referred to the nearest available facility, Manning said.

The 2,742-member department--which already has the lowest firefighter-to-population ratio of the nation's six largest cities with 8.4 firefighters per 10,000 people--must lose 160 emergency personnel through attrition, Manning said.

Andy Fox, president of the United Firefighters of Los Angeles Local 12, said: "Calling this program a 'brownout' is just an attempt to fool the public with a fancy name. Keeping fire stations open with only half their staff will cause an increase in loss of life and property."

Fire officials said they will need to remove 13 of the 97 engine and truck companies and six of the 54 ambulances from daily service. The cutbacks were ordered, officials said, to help balance the city's record $3.9-billion budget in the face of a projected citywide deficit of more than $177 million. The department is required to reduce its $250-million budget by 10%.

Industry officials said that it is too soon to know whether the cutbacks would affect insurance rates for homeowners and other property owners.

"In the long run, it could affect homeowners' insurance because rates are based on proximity to fire hydrants and fire stations, among other things," said Patty Lombard, executive director of the Western Insurance Information Center.

The Fire Department has an average response time of 5.3 minutes for heart attack cases, compared with the national minimum standard of eight minutes, said Fire Department Chief John Badgett.

The department's response time for fires is five to six minutes, he said. There is no national standard for fire response time, because it would vary according to topography and other variables.

"This is a bad time for these cutbacks--we respond to 1,000 calls a day in Los Angeles," Badgett said.

Over the past 10 years, fire and emergency responses have increased by 50% in the 500-square-mile city of Los Angeles, he said. Yet, since the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, personnel assigned to firefighting duties has decreased by 15%.

What is worse, officials said, is that implementation of the cost-saving program coincides with the start of the brush fire season in Los Angeles, which promises to be one of the worst in years because of the continuing drought.

Rebecca Hegwer, a spokeswoman for United Paramedics of Los Angeles, said the removal of six paramedic units from service each day amounts to "playing Russian roulette with people's lives."

"We feel there are other places they could have cut such as . . . department adjutants who drive the chiefs around," Hegwer said.

Nonetheless, she added, "some of our members have volunteered to work overtime without pay" to maintain emergency medical services.

News of the impending reduction in emergency forces prompted at least one downtown apartment complex manager to consider putting his employees through a CPR training course.

"This means we will have to take more responsibility for safety into our own hands," said the manager, Bob Mullen, 56, who worried about the reduction of paramedic response in a complex with many elderly tenants. "What else can we do?"

A few miles away, in the cluttered and stifling workroom of a clothing manufacturer in Los Angeles' garment district, Miguel Chel said he felt a lot less comfortable about coming to work.

"We depend on the Fire Department for help," said Chel, 35, who sews pants for a company called More Fashion. "We need to know that working conditions are safe for people like us."

Fire Department Cutbacks

The Los Angeles Fire Department has been mandated to cut 10 % of its current operating budget. The plan will involve the temporary removal, on a rotating basis, of 13 fire companies, six paramedic rescue ambulances and five command staff offices. Here are some areas that will be affected:

Community Resource Cuts Personnel Cuts Engines/ FireCompanies Trucks Firefighters Bunker Hill 1/1 6 Harbor City 1/0 4 Hollywood 1/1 8 Van Nuys 1/0 4 Pico/Robertson 1/1 6 Pacoima 1/0 4 Westchester 1/1 6 Glassel Park 1/0 4 Echo Park 1/1 6 Downtown/Industrial 1/0 4 Willowbrook 1/1 6 USC Village 1/0 4 Northridge 1/1 6 Paramedic Units Ambulances Paramedics South-Central 1 2 San Pedro 1 2 Pacific Palisades 1 2 East Los Angeles 1 2 Arleta 1 2 Hollywood 1 2 Command Stations Cars Staff San Fernando Valley 1 2 East Los Angeles 1 2 Westchester/LAX 1 2 South-Central 1 1 Hollywood 1 1 TOTAL 31 88

SOURCE: Los Angeles Fire Department

Compiled by Times editorial researcher Michael Meyers

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