L.A. Fire Department blames budget cuts for delayed response times

Critical minutes were lost in two recent emergency medical calls, including one in which a woman died, because nearby Los Angeles Fire Department engines had been taken out of service because of budget cuts, according to fire officials. In both cases, units from farther away responded to the calls.

Since August, at least three people have died -- including a 3-year-old boy and a 65-year-old woman -- in incidents in which a closer fire truck had been shuttered because of cutbacks imposed by the Fire Department.

Fire officials said there is no way to tell if the outcomes in those cases would have been different had the closer units been available, but they acknowledged that time is crucial during emergency responses.

“Time counts,” said Capt. Steve Ruda, a department spokesman. “The faster we can get to people in need, the more effective we can become.”

Each day, the department takes 15 fire engines and nine ambulances out of service on a rotating basis to help close a $56.5-million budget shortfall. Other departments across the city have also been forced to slash their budgets in the face of a growing deficit.

On Sunday, a 22-year-old woman suffered cardiac arrest in the Harvard Park area of South Los Angeles. She was later pronounced dead at a hospital, the Fire Department said.

Normally, the closest paramedic-staffed engine would have been a half-mile away. However, that engine had been shut down and a unit 1.7 miles away responded instead, arriving four minutes after the alarm was sounded, according to fire officials. An ambulance with two paramedics took eight minutes to get to the scene.

The department’s goal is to have the first unit arrive within five minutes 90% of the time, said Battalion Chief Ronnie Villanueva.

In emergencies involving patients in cardiac arrest, he said, irreversible brain damage occurs within four to six minutes. “That’s why we try to get our response times under five minutes,” he said.

On Friday, a 55-year-old woman suffered, but survived, an apparent stroke at the Chatsworth Metrolink station.

One of the paramedic-staffed fire units usually on duty had been shuttered, while the two other units at that station had been sent to a rescue call minutes earlier, officials said. The firehouse is about a half-mile from the train depot.

It took the next closest fire engine seven minutes to arrive after traveling 3.4 miles, officials said. The closest available paramedic ambulance had to travel 3.2 miles and took 11 minutes to get to the scene, according to the department.

“There will be increased response times,” Ruda said of the Chatsworth incident. “That’s part of the sacrifice in order to meet the monetary budget.”