Fires Just Waiting to Happen : Code violations abound, study of two inner-city neighborhoods finds

The crowded inner-city neighborhoods immediately west of downtown Los Angeles are full of firetraps.

A Times study has found numerous fire safety violations, such as broken fire doors, inoperable smoke detectors and missing fire extinguishers and hoses, in apartment buildings throughout the Pico-Union and Westlake districts. It found problems in both old buildings and newer apartments like the Burlington Avenue structure, erected just 10 years ago, that was the scene earlier this month of a fire that killed 10 adults and children. City leaders cannot ignore the potential for more tragedies.

A random review of files also found that the Los Angeles Fire Department has missed the required annual inspections on many buildings. Some violations reported years ago have never been corrected. These findings call for more frequent inspections, computerized and complete files, better follow-up, a tougher enforcement policy and speedier compliance requirements.

Fire Chief Donald Manning told the City Council on Monday that he wants to establish a task force to make a sweep of apartment buildings in the two districts. He also has commissioned an internal audit to determine how to improve inspections and enforcement.

The department is short-staffed because of budget cuts. The number of firefighters is down 20% since the passage of Proposition 13, the property tax-cutting measure, in 1978. Those cuts would be bearable if the demand for services had also dropped; however, the workload has doubled in that period.

Firefighters need help. Safety signs and information in Spanish and English would better serve the predominantly immigrant community.

Mandatory fire sprinklers could prevent fires like the Burlington Avenue blaze from spreading. That fire raced out of control because many fire doors had been nailed or propped open. Sprinklers would have quickly doused the flames. The City Council, at the urging of member Mike Hernandez, is taking another look at sprinklers. It's time to reconsider the significant costs of such safety systems and weigh them against the benefits.

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