Audits Find Fire Violations in Most L.A. Apartments : Safety: Few have proper equipment. Late inspections, lax record keeping by Fire Department add to problem.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The vast majority of apartments and residential hotels in Los Angeles were in violation of fire safety codes, and the Fire Department's enforcement system has been plagued by late inspections and shoddy record keeping, according to two city audits launched after a fatal fire last spring.

Buildings of three to five stories commonly have malfunctioning fire doors and fire alarms, missing smoke detectors and missing fire extinguishers, posing a hazard to residents, the Fire Department and city administrative officer found in separate studies obtained Wednesday by The Times.

The Fire Department's report, based on inspections of 460 randomly selected buildings across the city, concluded that:

* Seventy percent of the multiunit buildings were in violation of fire codes.

* Thirty-six percent had not undergone the required annual inspections--and in areas with the most emergency calls, such as Pico Union/Westlake and South-Central Los Angeles, the rate rose to as much as 68%.

* There are "no incentives" for owners to correct violations, in part because tougher laws are needed.

* Firefighters need more fire prevention training.

* Fire inspection record-keeping was inconsistent or incomplete, resulting in confusion and inefficiency.

There was a "startling pattern of neglect to fire prevention records that are the fire station's only resource to determine the potential fire safety of an occupancy," the 43-page study said.

The chief administrative officer's auditors, in sampling 10 inspection records at each of 30 fire stations--found that only 51% of the buildings had been inspected in the past year, and that 62% of them had safety violations.

The audits were initiated in response to a May 3 apartment fire that killed 10 people in the Westlake district near Downtown. They followed a Times investigation that found widespread fire safety violations in the district and poor Fire Department record keeping and inspection procedures. A random sampling showed that almost two-thirds of the buildings had not been inspected in the past year.

Fire officials have criticized The Times' findings, saying they do not reflect fire prevention citywide.

The CAO's report was commissioned by Councilman Mike Hernandez, whose 1st District includes Pico-Union and Westlake. "I'm disappointed that it took the Burlington fire to get these audits," Hernandez said Wednesday. "But now there's no denying that a problem exists."

Battalion Chief Dean E. Cathey, department spokesman, said Wednesday the audits show that firefighters face an ongoing battle against irresponsible building owners and managers who refuse to make repairs to fire safety equipment. "We're not able to force people on a day-to-day basis to maintain their buildings," Cathey said. "We can't ensure that people won't dismantle fire doors and remove smoke detectors, fire extinguishers and fire hoses."

Many violations found in the city reports--such as locked exits and propped-open fire doors--were similar to those that officials say allowed deadly smoke in the Westlake fire to spread quickly. Many victims were felled in the hallways as they tried to escape.

Both reports blamed such code enforcement problems in part on a reduction in staffing levels and a dramatic increase in emergency responses that have reduced the time firefighters spend on fire prevention. They also called for fire enforcement measures that would add teeth to a system that currently results in few fines or other penalties.

The Fire Department report called for fining building owners who fail to correct violations. The report did not specify a fine amount, but officials have said they would favor a $170 penalty.

The report also placed much blame for repeated fire violations on apartment managers. "Many managers took no responsibility for the condition of their buildings or for the fire life-safety systems," the department said in calling for a certification program that would train managers to keep their buildings fire-safe.

The reports concluded that mandatory fire sprinklers in apartment buildings would decrease the potential for serious loss of life. "The most important change that needs to be made is to require sprinklers in all enclosed multiunit residential occupancies built between 1943 and 1990 that are 16 or more units or three or more stories in height," the Fire Department said.

The CAO's report noted that, unlike sprinklers, much existing fire safety equipment is vulnerable to tampering and theft. Equipment such as smoke detectors and alarm systems is designed to protect against and control fire but not to extinguish it. "The bottom line in this audit is that all of these passive measures don't work," City Administrative Officer Keith Comrie said Wednesday.

Comrie's report said fire officials estimate it would cost $1,016 per unit to install sprinklers in apartments. To install sprinklers in the hallways, with an additional sprinkler head at each door, would cost $438 per unit, the report said.

In the past, after major fires, the City Council has considered a variety of sprinkler ordinances. Most have met opposition from building owners who say the costs are prohibitive and would force them to raise rents drastically. Fire officials have estimated that several thousand apartment buildings do not have sprinklers.

Fire Chief Donald O. Manning has proposed that special teams of investigators be used to target high-density areas that are particularly susceptible to fire code problems because firefighters there are occupied with emergency calls.

Since the late 1970s, the Fire Department's emergency calls have more than doubled while inspections of apartments and residential hotels have decreased by nearly three-fourths. The number of hours expended on fire prevention efforts has been cut in half, and the number of citations issued by inspectors has declined slightly. The 3,050-member department has been reduced by more than 400 firefighters during the same span.

As part of the audit, the department administered a fire prevention examination to 130 firefighters. Their average score was 63%, and some scored as low as 35%. "This alone is evidence that training is necessary in the recognition of hazards, requirements of the fire code and the legal process," the report said.

The reports found numerous deficiencies in inspection follow-up and record keeping.

In a random survey, Fire Department auditors examined 190 inspection files at 21 stations. Auditors found that 85% of the records did not carry the dates when the buildings needed to be reinspected and that roughly the same percentage did not contain current information about required testing for fire sprinklers, fire escape ladders and alarm systems.

The record keeping problems, the report said, reflect "a lack of fire prevention training, a misunderstanding of the importance of this training, and placing fire prevention in a 'lesser importance' than many other administrative duties."

To help correct inspection deficiencies, the department called for a computerized fire prevention program to keep keep track of problem buildings. It would allow inspectors to record information, schedule inspections and reinspections and log citations. One battalion, officials said, is testing such a system.

Another issue, the report said, is that firefighters are reluctant to forward information about persistent code violators to the department's legal liaison unit for prosecution by the city attorney's office. "Field personnel would rather give extensions on a (violation) notice and work with the owner . . . than get involved in a legal process that they consider 'more trouble than it's worth,' " the report said.

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