Los Angeles City Fire Chief Donald O. Manning told City Council members Monday that he wants to establish a task force of inspectors to sweep through more than 1,200 old apartment buildings in the Pico-Union/Westlake area and similar complexes throughout the city.
Manning's announcement came Monday as The Times reported widespread fire safety violations and slipshod inspections in the area, where a May 3 fire killed 10 people.
The chief told a council committee that he has commissioned an extensive internal audit to see how the department can improve its inspection and fire safety code enforcement efforts. He said he plans to ask the council for money to improve the system.
Fire Commission President Carl Terzian welcomed Manning's proposals, saying the department needs to crack down on negligent apartment owners and managers.
"Some teeth have to be put into a program to fight back," he said in an interview, "so we don't have a tragedy like we just had."
Councilman Mike Hernandez, who represents the Pico-Union/Westlake area, called for an independent city audit not only of the Fire Department, but also of the Building and Safety Department and other city agencies that have a role in fire safety inspections.
"It is extremely important that city agencies get away from auditing themselves," Hernandez said. "That's how we got into this problem in the first place."
The councilman also criticized the Fire Department's inspection efforts, citing Times findings that two-thirds of 75 buildings randomly surveyed had not been inspected within the last year, as required, although many had serious violations such as locked exits.
"I think it's terrible," Hernandez said, "because they don't inspect my (district's) buildings and they let people get away with violations."
Councilman Nate Holden said such a review "should have been done long ago. There is no excuse why those buildings are not in compliance."
Holden said he would support giving the Fire Department more money for additional inspectors. "These are essential services," he said. "They must be maintained at the highest level."
Manning made his remarks during a meeting of the council's Public Safety Committee, held to discuss the Fire Department's response to the May 3 fire. That blaze, the chief has said, caused many deaths because fire code violations allowed smoke and flames to spread quickly.
But Manning returned time and again to issues of inspections and fire code enforcement. "In these areas we are clearly understaffed," he said. "The ability to get back (to buildings) as often as they would like . . . just is not there."
Manning said he wants to hire extra fire crews specifically to go out and inspect buildings instead of responding to emergencies, and to pay firefighters overtime to conduct inspections on their days off.
But such efforts have not been possible because of budget cuts, he said. Since 1978, the department has lost 20% of its firefighting force, but its emergency calls have doubled.
"We've got to make these sweeps," he said. "But to embark on new programs, there is just no money there. This current economic situation is a nightmare for us."
Manning said the inspection team would be modeled after a task force that requires landowners to clear brush from their properties or pay to have the city eliminate the fire hazard.
He recommended training apartment managers in fire safety and installing sprinklers in apartment building hallways. He also proposed a $170 fine against building owners if fire inspectors return and find that previously cited violations have not been fixed.
Manning said he ordered the audit Friday "to get a good strong handle on exactly what needs to be done and how much that will cost." Manning said his decision was not prompted by inquiries from The Times.
Ed Corser, assistant city administrative officer, said, "I think it would be fair to say an outside look in connection with the Fire Department would be helpful. But it's (Fire Department) management's responsibility to look at the issue first."
Terzian said he supported Manning's call for an internal audit and a task force, adding that public apathy and opposition from apartment owners and managers helped stymie such efforts in the past.
"Owners and managers have been involved in the political process and stood in the way of what we wanted to do," Terzian said. "Unfortunately, human nature being the way it is, it takes a tragedy to get things to happen."