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Fire Official’s Decision Sparks Debate : Response: Westminster chief turned down request for help during Los Angeles riots.

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TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The only fire chief in Orange County who refused to send personnel to the riot-torn streets of South Los Angeles has become a center of controversy and sparked questions about how well firefighters can be protected in future disasters.

Westminster Fire Chief D’Wayne Scott, 51, citing concern for the safety of his firefighters after riots broke out in the wake of the Rodney G. King verdict, turned down the Los Angeles Fire Department’s request for help on the evening of April 29.

Scott, whose decision was overturned the next day by the City Council, was the topic of an hourlong, closed-door council session Monday afternoon that ended with no stated conclusion.

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His action also has sparked discussion among fire chiefs. At their monthly meeting Thursday, the Orange County Fire Chiefs Assn. plans to discuss ways to protect firefighters during situations such as the Los Angeles riots.

Throughout his time on the hot seat, Scott has remained steadfast.

“You have to be assured your personnel would be protected,” Scott explained in a phone interview Monday. “And what I saw from monitoring the TV all that day, the beatings and the lootings, looked to me like a very unsafe situation.”

At the request of the Los Angeles Fire Department, a total of 55 fire engines from Orange County went north to help battle blazes the first night of rioting, said Capt. Dan Young, a spokesman for the Orange County Fire Department, which coordinated the effort.

The fire engines made up 11 strike teams, each having from a dozen to 25 firefighters. Each was escorted from fire to fire by several patrol cars of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Despite the protection, at least one Orange County firefighter was injured during the Los Angeles rioting. Santa Ana firefighter Lenny Edelman, 32, was shot in the left thigh while fighting fires April 30.

Scott’s decision frustrated some of his firefighters, who then volunteered as members of the local firefighters union to form a unit to go to Los Angeles the morning of April 30, said Paul Gilbrook, president of the Westminster Firefighters Local 2425.

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“At the time, there were quite a few people upset in the station here, and that’s why the executive board decided to send people,” said Gilbrook, who volunteered with five other firefighters from Westminster.

“We felt that we were in the profession where if people call for help, we have to respond,” Gilbrook said. “That’s what we trained for and prepared for all these years. And you can’t choose calls. You go on them all, big and small.”

The volunteer unit, composed of off-duty officers, went up in a Ford pickup and a Lincoln sedan. The firefighters were worried about going to the main command post, near the heart of the riot, but they ran into a California Highway Patrol officer near Dodger Stadium and persuaded him to escort them.

The other firefighters were Tom Loveless, Ken Kungle, Craig Campbell, Hal Raphael and Mark Benedetti.

Scott said he knew that his staff wanted to go but that he had to be a responsible manager.

“My personnel are very concerned about my decision,” Scott said. “They want to fight fires like they’re trained to do, and that’s understandable.”

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By April 30, the Westminster City Council voted to override Scott’s decision, and a team of 16 firefighters was sent that evening. The 16 worked on rotating shifts from April 30 to May 1, said Donald S. Anderson, Westminster’s assistant city manager.

City Council members and the mayor who met Monday declined to comment on what was discussed or whether any decision was reached during the session.

“It was a labor relations and personnel matter,” Mayor Charles V. Smith said. “There was no decision reached that required a public announcement or public session,” City Atty. Richard Jones said.

Smith said no vote was taken during the meeting.

Fire departments throughout Orange County were among about 50 agencies in Southern California that helped during the riots under a statewide mutual aid agreement, said Chief Dean Cathey, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Fire Department.

The written agreement calls for all fire agencies to help each other as needed during disasters such as brush fires or earthquakes.

“It’s not a binding agreement,” Cathey said. “Chiefs do have the right to deny the request if it would jeopardize firefighting in their own communities. But it’s very much understood that if you deny, then when your moment comes you might not get the help you want.”

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He said Westminster appeared to be the only agency to decline sending personnel.

“The response overall was incredible. Everything we needed we got and then some.”

Scott’s concern for the safety of his firefighters “was a valid concern,” Cathey said. “But every chief had that same concern.”

Scott said he had “no concerns whatsoever” that his decision in April might affect other fire department agencies’ decisions to send their firefighters to Westminster under mutual aid agreements.

“I will not hesitate to call upon other departments,” Scott said.

Other fire chiefs in the county said they do not agree with Scott’s decision but understood why he was worried.

“My attitude was that I fully understand his concern. However, my decision was based on my officers being able to make decisions in the field as to the safety of the crew,” said Chief Bud Moody of the Brea Fire Department. “The field commanders were in the position to judge, and that’s where I put my reliance. I wouldn’t second guess Chief Scott’s decision.”

Rich Dewberry, president of the Orange County Fire Chiefs Assn. and chief of the Laguna Beach Fire Department, agreed.

“I don’t blame him for doing what he thought he had to do. It’s his people,” Dewberry said. “But I just trust the strike team leader whose responsibility it is to make that decision” of whether an area is safe to battle a blaze.

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But “civil disorder is different from most disasters we respond to,” Dewberry said, and raises new questions.

“We need to look at ways to protect our strike teams, and that might mean changes in our current policy dealing with participating in the mutual aid agreement. So the next time, chiefs like Scott won’t have to make that decision and would be comfortable with our policy.”

Scott suggested that firefighters should be accompanied by police from their own cities, and should have continual protection by those officers from the staging area to the fire.

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