L.A. lags in checking for fire hazards

City fire inspectors have failed to perform required safety checks on hundreds of buildings across Los Angeles where people gather for large events, children go to school and hazardous materials are stored, a Times review of city records shows.

State and local codes require the Los Angeles Fire Department to inspect commercial, industrial, nightclub, school and day-care buildings annually for life-threatening hazards.

But summary inspection reports for the last two fiscal years show that personnel from the department’s Bureau of Fire Prevention and Public Safety have been falling behind in their efforts to flag hazards such as inoperable sprinkler systems, illegally stored hazardous materials and broken or missing fire extinguishers. In some parts of the city, inspectors were surveying fewer than a third of their assigned buildings, according to the records.


The reports, obtained under the California Public Records Act, also show that inspectors failed to return to hundreds of buildings that had been cited for safety hazards. In such cases, department regulations require inspectors to re-check buildings within 30 days to determine if violations have been corrected.

Assistant Fire Marshal Craig A. Fry, who oversees daily prevention operations, acknowledged that inspectors need to improve their performance. “Absolutely, we should be completing 100%,” he said.

Part of the problem, said Fire Marshal Jim Hill, is that retirements and transfers have left staffing holes in some of his units. He noted that the bureau has about 154 inspectors -- the same number it had in 1992.

Yet the number of annual inspections has increased 52% in the period because of additional buildings that have been constructed and renovated.

“It’s been an explosion of new buildings,” Hill said, adding that he will lose an additional three inspector positions under the 2009-10 budget.

The importance of fire prevention was underscored more than a decade ago when a fast-moving blaze killed 10 people in a Westlake apartment building in one of the deadliest fires in Los Angeles history. Firefighters had cited the building for violations before but failed to return to make sure the owner had corrected the hazards, which contributed to the fire’s rapid spread.

In the aftermath, the department vowed to reform its inspection process. Among other things, a computer system was purchased to replace card files used by inspectors. But that system, now 15 years old, cannot perform the detailed analysis that would help supervisors track inspections. Nor can it always compile accurate data.

For instance, inspection records initially provided to The Times contained erroneous information, which officials discovered only after a reporter asked questions.

The record keeping “is obsolete,” said Capt. Scott Miller, who gathered the data for the newspaper.

Hill said money for a state-of-the-art computer system is included in the department’s new budget, which takes effect July 1. But with the agency facing $56 million in projected cuts, officials said, there are no guarantees the system will be purchased.

The worst fire inspection rate was in the Fire Prevention Bureau’s Central Industrial Unit, which covers an area from downtown to Manchester Boulevard in South Los Angeles. Inspectors in that unit are responsible for checking 2,376 commercial and industrial buildings, a number of them containing hazardous materials.

But in the fiscal year from July 1, 2007, through June 30, 2008, only 908 buildings, or 38%, were inspected. An additional 1,229 buildings were overdue for inspection from previous years, and 545 others had been previously cited for hazards but had not been re-inspected, the records show.

By the end of April, the most recent data available, only 41% of the unit’s buildings had been inspected. In three of its nine divisions, the inspection rate was less than 30%, including one where only 12% of several hundred buildings had been surveyed.

Fry said the unit is supposed to have nine inspectors but has been operating with only five for about the last seven months. Some inspectors have been transferred to other details, such as those that examine high-rise buildings and hillside areas where brush needs to be cleared.

Those assignments have priority, Fry said, because building owners are charged for those inspections. He said the department is considering a fee for other types of inspections to raise revenue that could be used to hire additional personnel and help pay for the new computer system.

In the bureau’s Central Public Assembly Unit, which inspects nightclubs and theaters from downtown to South L.A., only 51% of 664 buildings were inspected last fiscal year, the records show. In the same period, inspectors failed to return to 287 buildings cited for violations.

By the end of April, the unit had improved its inspection rate to 61%, but inspectors had yet to reexamine 287 buildings that had been cited.

The unit that covers churches and schools citywide inspected 70% of its 3,961 buildings last fiscal year. As of the end of April this year, 43% of the unit’s structures had been inspected, according to department records.

Fry said he believed that the unit would be close to 100% when the fiscal year ends this month.

With a new computer system, additional staff and revenue generated by inspection fees, Fry said, all his units would be able to check all their buildings and stop blazes before they break out.

“If we get the support, it’s a reality,” he said. “My goal is to never have a fire truck go out on a fire” because hazardous conditions have been eliminated.