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L.A. Buildings Plagued by Fire Safety Violations : Housing: Times study in Pico-Union/Westlake finds slipshod inspections. Officials cite lack of resources.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Many buildings in the densely populated Pico-Union/Westlake area near downtown suffer from fire safety violations rivaling those that allowed a blaze to race through a crowded apartment house three weeks ago, killing 10 residents.

Last week, the Alta Casa Apartments, two blocks from the fire site, had no fire extinguishers and some fire hose cabinets were nailed shut. One fire escape ladder appeared broken, and windows to another fire escape were stuck. The rooftop exit was illegally padlocked.

The nearby St. Arthur Apartments had barred windows in some units that could trap tenants. In the hallways, fire safety equipment was missing and some fire doors were illegally propped open--as were doors in the tragic May 3 blaze at 330 S. Burlington Ave.

The area--home to one of the busiest fire stations in the nation--has been hailed by one top fire official as a model for fire safety inspections throughout Los Angeles. Officials said firefighters do their best despite staff reductions and an increasing workload.

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A Times study has found that the area suffers from life-threatening fire safety violations and that the Los Angeles Fire Department’s enforcement system is plagued by slipshod inspections and record-keeping.

A random review of inspection files for 75 of the estimated 1,200 to 1,400 apartment buildings indicated that most buildings did not receive required annual inspections. Records also showed that some violations identified years ago were never corrected. Visits to many buildings disclosed additional problems.

Among the findings:

* Almost two out of three buildings surveyed have not been inspected within the past year, and nearly a third of the complexes had not been inspected in more than two years. About 10% of the buildings had not been checked since 1989.

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* One in three complexes in the study had been cited for fire doors that were broken or propped open, unable to stop deadly smoke and flames from spreading.

* Several complexes had illegally locked or chained fire escape doors or ladders--measures that building owners say are necessary to keep out intruders.

* Half the buildings in the survey had been cited for broken or missing fire extinguishers, and one in five were cited for missing or broken smoke detectors. Some complexes that were visited last week had no fire extinguishers.

* Most buildings had failed to put up fire warning signs telling residents how to escape. The signs that were posted usually were in English, even though city fire codes require postings in Spanish in the heavily Latino area.

* Inspectors ordered building managers to establish round-the-clock fire patrols in 19 cases where violations were deemed to be life threatening. But inspectors checked to see if the violations were fixed in about one-third of those cases.

* Inspection files, the cornerstone of the department’s fire prevention program, were often incomplete.

Fire officials were unable to locate any files for a few buildings. And they acknowledged last week that, as a result of a bureaucratic mistake, there was not a file until recently for the decade-old building where 10 died this month.

In an interview, Battalion Chief Dean E. Cathey questioned whether The Times’ findings are reflective of fire safety throughout the Pico-Union/Westlake area and the rest of the city. But he said the department needs to improve its inspection and enforcement efforts.

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“The system is not a perfect system,” Cathey said. “We’re looking real hard at how we can improve our follow-up.”

Fire officials are to appear today before the City Council’s Public Safety Committee to discuss the Burlington fire.

The city has not formally studied the Fire Department’s inspection and enforcement system. But some city officials said The Times’ findings confirm what they have long suspected, based on anecdotal evidence: Many apartment complexes in the Pico-Union/Westlake area have had chronic fire safety violations rivaling or surpassing those at the Burlington building.

“The buildings we deal with are deathtraps about to explode,” said Deputy City Atty. Richard M. Bobb, head of a multi-agency city task force that targets slum apartment complexes. “We knew it was only a matter of time.”

The old neighborhoods just west of the downtown skyscrapers are a firefighter’s nightmare. Their narrow sloping streets are crammed with ramshackle apartment buildings and residential hotels, packed far past capacity with immigrant families from Central America and Mexico.

Some of the city’s deadliest fires have occurred in the once-elegant residential buildings around MacArthur Park. Now there are as many as 147 people per acre--or four times the average density of Manhattan, and 10 times that of Los Angeles. The vast majority of units are occupied by more than one family. Firefighters often find babies sleeping in dresser drawers, and children in closets that serve as their bedrooms.

In an area where crime, drugs and gangs abound, there can be a trade-off between fire safety and security. Some tenants say they welcome chains and bars on the very doors and windows that could provide escape routes in a fire.

There are other problems: vandals who steal extinguishers, irresponsible tenants who prop open fire doors, neglectful managers and absentee owners who refuse to make repairs.

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The 30 firefighters assigned to Station 11 are responsible for inspecting almost all buildings in the 1.7-square-mile area.

Department policy calls for one annual inspection of each apartment complex and three night visits a year. But firefighters say they cannot possibly get to each building even once a year because too much of their time is absorbed by emergency calls, training and other duties.

“We get out there, and make an honest attempt to do what we can do,” said Capt. John Martinez, a station commander.

But problems at Fire Station 11 go far beyond a failure to make annual inspections.

Most inspection records examined by The Times were incomplete. For example, some fire door and extinguisher violations did not list the locations. Other files did not contain the formal citations that would guide future inspections and could provide a basis for legal action against the owner.

Some files did not indicate whether violations were corrected or not. Others did not contain the building’s inspection history dating back five years, as required.

Fire Inspector David R. Castaneda, who until recently coordinated fire inspections for the city’s Slum Housing Task Force, said many files compiled by Station 11’s firefighters should have contained more detailed information. “Why they don’t, I don’t know.”

At the Alta Casa Apartments at 438 S. Union Dr., records show firefighters last checked the building 14 months ago, and that management waited two months to comply with an order to replace extinguishers on the second and third floors. The fire escapes and standpipes--used to supply water for the building’s fire hoses--had not been inspected in more than five years, according to the records.

During a visit last week, fire safety problems were apparent. All extinguishers were missing, and the trouble light on the building’s alarm system was blinking. There was a frayed and tangled cable on one of the fire escapes. An exit door was padlocked. And the manager locks the doors leading to the fire escapes at night.

“There is no way to escape,” said Rolando Escobar, 39, a Salvadoran immigrant. “I worry. But what can I do? It’s either this, or live out on the street.” The day laborer sleeps in the closet of a one-room flat so five others have more room.

Orlando Bersi, owner of the Alta Casa Apartments, said gang members have used the roof and balconies to take drugs and to fire guns into the air and at passersby. So, he said, he padlocks the door to the roof and at night locks the fire escape doors.

“I know it’s illegal,” Bersi said, “but it’s better than having these gangbangers kill somebody.”

He said the fire extinguishers were stolen two weeks ago and he plans to replace them. He said he was unaware that any fire hose cabinets were nailed shut, but said he would fix them. Last year, Bersi said, he spent $3,700 repairing vandalism and replacing stolen extinguishers.

When the St. Arthur Apartments, at 2014 W. 8th St., were last inspected six months ago, a firefighter noticed bars on some windows and referred the apparent violation to the department’s downtown Fire Prevention Bureau. Bars in sleeping areas are illegal unless equipped with quick-release safety devices.

Records indicate no one from the station returned to check for compliance at the St. Arthur Apartments. Last week, bars remained, along with numerous other violations.

Jorge Franco lives behind the bars of a first-floor apartment with his wife, sister-in-law and her 3-year-old daughter. The bars have a safety release but Franco said he does not have the key to unlock it.

“If something happens, we are trapped,” said Franco, 44. “We all are scared.”

Down the hall, Gloria Marina Chinchilla’s three baby sons sleep in shopping carts instead of cribs. Her windows also were barred, and the smoke detector in her room dangled by a wire. One of the owners, Abraham Ohebsion, said he was not aware of the problems but would fix everything. Like other property owners, he said maintaining an inner-city building is an ongoing battle against irresponsible tenants and vandals. “You fix these things one day,” he said, “and they break them tomorrow.”

Fire officials say some violations at the St. Arthur, including barred windows and smoke detectors inside bedrooms, are the responsibility of the city’s Building and Safety Department.

But Building and Safety inspectors only check for fire safety violations if they get a complaint from the public, or a referral from the Fire Department or other city agencies.

Neither building nor fire officials keep statistics on the number of referrals to gauge whether violations such as illegal bars were fixed.

Building officials complain they get few referrals, especially from fire inspectors. “They don’t flood us with them, that’s for sure,” said one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We should get more. I know there are a lot more violations.”

City Atty. Bobb said follow-up is as important, if not more so, than original inspections. “Without follow-up inspections, recalcitrant landlords are free to gamble with the lives of their tenants,” he said.

In many cases, problems cited years ago remain.

The 36-unit El Vista Apartments across from MacArthur Park was cited in August, 1990, for missing fire extinguishers on all floors, and an inspector noted in May, 1991, that there was “still noncompliance.” Yet records show no one has returned to check the building in two years.

Last week, it appeared that nothing had changed. There was not a single fire extinguisher.

Manager Imelda Murillo did not see a problem for the tenants. “They have water inside their apartments,” she said. “They can use that.”

Some fire doors were tied back with wire. Two fire hoses had been stolen and another was slashed. The door to the roof was locked with two padlocks--which the manager said is necessary to keep children from playing on the roof.

Tenant Raymond Camp, 57, needs a cane to walk but said he is not afraid of a fire. “I’m right close to the fire escape,” he said, “so I don’t worry.”

But the fire escape had a frayed pulley wire--and records indicate that it had not been tested in five years.

“It’s nearly impossible to keep up with things,” said the building’s co-owner, Nejatollah Bakhshian. He said he was unaware of the problems but would fix them.

Experts say fires spread so rapidly that all building exits need to remain open at all times.

“That loss of seconds can be a difference of life and death,” said Bruce Hisley, a training specialist with the National Fire Academy in Maryland. “It is literally that precarious.”

In the Burlington fire, officials said, most victims were felled by smoke that quickly spread from one floor to another because the fire doors were propped open, nailed open or broken.

Three weeks earlier, similar violations had led firefighters to order a fire watch at the building. Although such patrols are among the most stringent safety measures available, the watch was not established and firefighters did not return to the building to enforce the order.

The Times found that the department has ordered fire watches in several other buildings but did not check to see whether managers had conducted hourly patrols and kept a log.

A fire patrol was ordered for a Wilshire Boulevard apartment house on May 10 because the alarm system was not working. The manager said last week that he fixed the alarm but has heard nothing from the Fire Department.

Fire officials and private fire safety contractors said no amount of vigilance can work if tenants, managers and owners are uncooperative.

“One owner paid us $25,000 to fix the fire doors, and we put in six new doors one day,” said Scott Smith of the Mike Green Fire Co. of West Los Angeles. “By the next day, all were hanging off their hinges. . . . How are they supposed to police that kind of situation?”

In some buildings, however, vigilance apparently has paid off.

At 439 S. Bonnie Brae, signs warned tenants that they could be prosecuted for propping open fire doors. Last week, all the potentially life-saving doors were in working order.

Rafael Cappucci’s management company runs a building near Westlake that suffered a recent fire. No one was injured because all the fire doors and the sprinklers worked, firefighters said.

“It’s an ongoing battle,” Cappucci said, adding that managers need to inspect their buildings every day.

Some community leaders complain that city officials tend to neglect the area because its poor and mostly Latino residents know too little of the laws and city bureaucracy to complain.

“They don’t care because the people who live here are immigrants,” said Delmy Ruiz, human relations director of the Central American Refugee Center, a social service organization. “There has to be a tragedy here (for officials) to notice that people are living in these miserable conditions.”

Community leaders, and some city officials, also allege that some landlords have little regard for the safety of their tenants. “They treat the buildings like cash cows, collect the rents and make no repairs,” said Bobb, the deputy city attorney. “If they performed standard maintenance, these buildings would never become slums or firetraps.”

Bobb said one of the biggest problems is that when his task force finally files criminal cases against the worst owners, enforcement efforts can get bogged down in court. Judges often grant continuances in the hopes of seeing buildings cleaned up rather than condemned and vacated, he said.

“We knew unfortunately that it would take a tragedy like this before judges would begin taking these things seriously,” Bobb said.

But the task force can only address about 40 buildings at a time--usually half of them in the Westlake area. The task force would tackle many more buildings, Bobb said, but it too lacks the resources.

Battalion Chief Cathey, who called Station 11 a model of fire code enforcement efforts, said the station is computerizing its inspection files to improve efficiency. But if the city wants more inspections, Cathey said, more firefighters or more money for overtime are needed.

“There has been no sympathy on the part of the City Council,” Cathey said. “It’s a political decision on how they want to fund the Fire Department. Obviously if we were making the decisions, our priorities would be different so the Fire Department could meet all its obligations.”


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