Does L.A. County’s ‘overstretched’ fire department need more money? Voters will decide

L.A. County firefighters contain a brush fire in a remote area in Sylmar.
L.A. County firefighters return to their vehicles after containing a brush fire in a remote area in Sylmar in 2018.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County firefighters on Tuesday won approval to ask voters for more money to help their sprawling department tackle increasingly destructive wildfires and a growing volume of medical calls.

The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to place a proposed parcel tax on the March ballot. The tax would apply to residents in the department’s coverage area, which spans 58 cities and the county’s unincorporated areas.

Fire Chief Daryl Osby, who has led the 4,600-member department and its $1.3-billion annual budget since 2011, told the supervisors before the vote that the money was critical to maintaining service amid added strain from wildfires and emergency calls. He has overseen the launch of a public campaign to raise awareness about the stresses facing the department.

“We’ve done all that we can do with our existing budget,” said Osby, who spoke in emotional terms about the toll on his firefighters. “I come here as a last resort to ask for your support in providing the necessary means to assist our firefighters in their mission.”


The tax would raise an estimated $134 million annually to help the department hire hundreds of new firefighters and paramedics, and finance upgrades to communications, vehicles and stations.

The ballot measure would require a two-thirds vote to be approved.

The department is primarily funded through property taxes, contracts for service and fees rather than the county’s general fund. That has tied the hands of county supervisors, who have said they are inclined to grant the additional resources that fire commanders say they need.

“We keep asking you to do more with less, and you have stepped up to the challenge each and every time. But I think it’s time we ask the people who depend on you,” said Supervisor Janice Hahn. “It’s time that we ask to invest in you, our firefighters and paramedics, and give you the resources you need to save lives and property.”

The parcel tax would collect 6 cents per square foot of “improvements” — assessable buildings and other structures — on properties in most areas where the department offers service, a 2,300-square mile region with 174 stations around in the county and lifeguard posts along 70 miles of shoreline.

About 4 million residents from Malibu to Pomona depend on the department, and its firefighters and equipment are often dispatched to assist in emergencies in other parts of the state, too.

In addition to several devastating fires that have happened recently, including the Woolsey fire in 2018, the department also is grappling with a lack of personnel to handle health-related calls, said Clayton Kazan, an emergency physician who serves as the department’s medical director

The department handled roughly 330,000 medical calls last year, a 60% increase from 205,000 in 2008, without a corresponding growth in resources, Kazan said.

“The system is dangerously overstretched,” Kazan said.

Fire commanders, including Osby and Kazan, say they planned to use the added money to hire an additional 10 fire engine companies and 20 to 25 paramedic squads — which would mean hundreds of new employees.

The funds also would help finance more than $1 billion in infrastructure upgrades over many years. The department’s 911 call center, for example, was built in the 1980s and has outdated mapping tools. Fire engines are aging, and stations need renovations and repairs.

The department also hopes to make a major investment in its communications technology so that each firefighter and paramedic can carry state-of-the-art radios that communicate with other agencies and will function during power outages or other disruptions.

Osby said hiring more employees would also help the department address a recent strain on its payroll, which has seen a 40% increase in overtime spending in the last eight years, according the California State Controller’s office.

Firefighters working extra shifts, especially during wildfire season, have fueled scrutiny of the hefty paychecks earned by some and concern among policymakers about overtime budgets — especially after the Woolsey fire exposed limitations in the state’s “mutual aid” system for fighting fires.