Reforms Ignited by Deadly Fire Still Not Implemented : Safety: City fire officials blame budget constraints and bureaucracy. The Pico/Westlake blaze killed 10.
One year after an arson blaze killed 10 people in an apartment building near Downtown Los Angeles, the major reforms proposed to help avert similar tragedies have not been implemented--and serious fire safety violations persist in the area.
Plans for new fees, a fire inspection task force and a computerized record-keeping system have been stalled.
Even relatively inexpensive equipment, such as fax machines and cameras that could help document fire code violatons, has not been purchased.
There were widespread calls for fire safety improvements after the May 3, 1993, fire at 330 S. Burlington Ave., one of the deadliest fires in Los Angeles history.
But fire officials say budget constraints and the city bureaucracy have thwarted their plans.
“The bottom line is that if the dollars aren’t there, it can’t be done,” said Battalion Chief Roger Gillis. “The frustration is there.”
After the fire, The Times reported that almost two-thirds of the apartment buildings in the densely populated Pico-Union/Westlake area had not received required annual inspections and that many had serious fire safety violations, such as missing fire extinguishers and padlocked emergency exits.
Two city audits later confirmed the widespread violations and found that shoddy record-keeping, understaffing and other problems had contributed to the dangerous conditions.
Appearing before City Council members after the blaze, city Fire Chief Donald O. Manning proposed a series of reforms, including creation of a special 25-member task force that would sweep through 1,200 apartment complexes in Pico/Westlake and other densely populated areas.
In an internal audit released in October, the Fire Department also proposed a $1.8-million computerized fire prevention system that would replace handwritten inspection cards and help ensure code compliance by apartment owners. Under the current system, fire officials did not have a file card with the fire safety history of the Burlington building until after the fire.
But fire officials said these two key proposals have been put on hold due to budgetary constraints.
Councilman Marvin Braude, chairman of the public safety committee, said all city departments must live within their budgets in difficult economic times. “If this is . . . the department’s highest priority, it should be done,” he said.
A spokeswoman for Mayor Richard Riordan, Noelia Rodriguez, said the Fire Department received all the money it asked for in the current budget. She said the City Council committees reviewing the audits of the Fire Department have not yet requested additional monies for proposed reforms either.
“We haven’t seen anything to act on from the council committees,” she said. “The Fire Department is getting what they asked for. It’s not like the mayor isn’t giving them the resources.”
The Fire Department has asked the City Council for the authority to charge building owners $170 fees for follow-up inspections of violations. Officials also renewed their efforts to get an ordinance requiring owners of many older apartment buildings to require sprinklers in hallways.
But fire officials said these two proposals are stuck in City Council committees.
Mundane problems also have hindered implementation of proposed reforms.
The department lacks $30,000 to purchase file cabinets for new larger-format inspection logs, officials said.
And an employee grievance has delayed a pilot program for two months that would allow two firefighters to handle follow-up inspections in Pico/Westlake and another busy fire district.
Meanwhile, hazardous fire safety conditions remain commonplace in Pico/Westlake buildings, although some of the residential hotels built in the 1920s and 1930s have shown improvement since last year, according to interviews and visits by reporters to more than two dozen buildings this month.
“The inner city is becoming a death trap due to lack of attention and resources to deal with these issues,” said City Councilman Mike Hernandez, whose district includes Pico/Westlake. “It’s always been the case that the inner city has been shortchanged.”
At the El Vista Apartments at 630 S. Alvarado St., some of the hallway doors designed to close in a fire to prevent the spread of smoke and flames were broken or propped open last week, and one fire hose was missing.
Fire extinguishers had been replaced, but the fire escape door to the El Vista’s roof was padlocked.
The building manager said he reported the missing fire hose to owner Nejatollah Bakhshian three weeks ago. Bakhshian told The Times that he would replace it and blamed the problems on intruders and irresponsible tenants.
Manager Francisco Mendez said that fire inspectors made him unlock the roof exit during an April 1 inspection, but that he relocked it to keep homeless people from sleeping on the roof and lighting fires to keep warm.
“I’m trying to protect the security of the families,” he said.
At the Hotel Barbizon, a brick-faced residential hotel, fire doors were propped open on every floor last week, and fire hose cabinets were nailed shut.
Building owner Joan Chen said she was unaware of the fire safety conditions, but would have her maintenance people do the necessary repairs.
Like other owners, she said that maintaining fire safety conditions was an ongoing battle and blamed tenants for propping open fire doors.
“We check it every week,” Chen said. “Tenants stick things in the doors.”
The nearby Bruce Arms had missing fire hoses and broken fire doors despite several inspections by the Fire Department, the building manager said. Other buildings had similar violations.
“The fire hazards are still here,” said Enrique Velazquez, director of Inquilinos Unidos, an advocacy group for the mostly immigrant tenants of Pico/Westlake. “The problem is that the city is not doing much about them. . . . It is a nightmare, I tell you, to live in this neighborhood.”
After the Burlington fire, the Fire Department inspected thousands of similar buildings across the city. Battalion Chief Gillis said inspectors issued numerous citations and referred 654 cases to city attorneys for possible legal action against apartment owners.
Since then, at least 438 of the cases have been resolved, usually when the owner complied with fire codes.
Gillis said the department has tried to streamline the inspection system and is providing additional fire prevention training for firefighters. In addition, he said, fire inspections are being given a high priority, although emergency response remains the highest.
Gillis said firefighters conducting inspections in busy areas no longer will be interrupted for tasks such as cleanup of fuel spills.
“We’re hoping that by speeding the (inspection) system up, making it more user-friendly and reducing the workload on firefighters, that we’ll get into more buildings,” he said.
However, Gillis added, budget pressures may prevent the department from increasing inspections. Already, the number of surprise night inspections for each apartment building has been reduced from three a year to one.
Last year’s Fire Department budget was $249.6 million, and the proposed budget for the next fiscal year is $253.1 million. Officials said their staffing levels have dropped 18% since 1978 while the workload has doubled.
Fire officials blame others for many of the fire safety problems:
Some landlords do not properly maintain their buildings, even after being taken to court. Some apartment managers padlock doors to keep out the homeless and gang members. And some residents deactivate fire alarms when frying food, and some steal the fire extinguishers.
City officials said an important part of building safety rests with the managers who must make sure that fire doors are working well enough to stop a fire and deadly smoke.
In the Burlington fire, smoke raced through the building with such speed that residents died in the hallways while trying to escape. Investigators later found that fire doors had been propped open.
Many other buildings are vulnerable to the sort of fire that races down a central hallway through open fire doors, said Robert Barton, a Building and Safety Department senior inspector who sits on the city’s multi-agency slum task force.
“That fire will have nothing to stop it, and there will be nothing there that the tenants can use to stop the fire,” Barton said.
To help avert similar fires, the Fire Department is seeking an ordinance that would force apartment building owners to install sprinklers in hallways.
“In hundreds of locations, they literally cannot keep the extinguishers in there,” Chief Manning told the Fire Commission last week. “They are stolen, often immediately after they are installed.”
But Manning said owners have refused to pay for the costly sprinklers, even after fire officials offered to waive a requirement for portable fire extinguishers.
“They were very, very adamant,” he said.
Other problems, including some identified in the audits, have gone unaddressed.
More bilingual inspectors are needed to improve communication with residents, to find out their concerns and problems and warn them of the need to obey fire safety laws, according to an audit conducted last year by the city’s chief administrative office.
“The number of non-English-speaking tenants and managers make the dissemination of Fire Code procedures and regulations extremely difficult,” said the CAO audit. “It was brought to our attention that brochures explaining (fire safety code) requirements in languages other than English might well prove the difference between life and death should a fire or other fire safety incident arise.”
Yet many of the buildings visited by reporters last week lacked even the most rudimentary fire safety signs. Although the buildings house many Latino immigrants, only a few had signs in English and Spanish explaining escape routes and the need to keep fire doors open.
Other proposed reforms also have gone by the wayside.
The city’s Building and Safety Department inspectors often come across fire safety violations, but they are limited to a reactive role. For example, they can only go out on a fire inspection in response to a complaint. Then they are only allowed to inspect the one apartment unit with a reported problem--not the entire building.
Critics say the reform measures have been too little, and too late.
Councilman Hernandez blamed city officials for not adequately funding the Fire Department. Hernandez said the reforms have taken a back seat to other priorities caused by the Jan. 17 Northridge earthquake.
Said Velazquez, the tenant advocate: “When the issue is hot, everyone is interested and wants to do something. Once the issue cools down, no one pays attention. The problems are still there. And the situation is getting worse and worse.”