The Los Angeles Fire Department requires a sweeping overhaul of how it responds to hundreds of thousands of medical rescues and 911 calls each year, according to a long-awaited consultant’s report commissioned by the city.
The recommendations call for significant and potentially costly changes at the troubled agency, which has faced scrutiny over increasing response times to medical emergencies and recurring problems inside the dispatch center.
The 80-page report found “significant cultural, organizational, process and technology challenges which seriously impair the department’s performance.”
“There is a lack of accountability, engagement and community presence,” said the report, prepared at the direction of the City Council by PA Consulting, a global firm, and presented Monday to City Administrative Officer Miguel A. Santana.
The consultants called on the city to fill nearly 200 LAFD positions now held by firefighters with civilians, including employees working in the agency’s 911 call center and overseeing data analysis. Consolidating the call center with one operated by the Police Department also should be considered to improve service and save money, the report says.
The report also calls for spreading out existing department paramedics so that at least one highly trained medical rescuer would be on every ambulance and firetruck in the city.
Some proposals, such as repositioning rescue units to different parts of the city based on emergency-call trends, would require a sophisticated data analysis unit. Though the department has made some strides in using data, the report’s authors noted, fire officials have been unable to develop a basic strategy to address problems caused by an aging, crash-prone computer system at the heart of the agency’s dispatch operations.
The report comes as the Fire Department has been buffeted by political and management challenges, including the 911 response problems and employee discrimination and bias complaints that have cost taxpayers $20 million since 2005. Last week, the firefighter selection process came under scrutiny at City Hall after The Times reported that thousands of candidates were eliminated when their paperwork didn’t arrive in the Personnel Department during a 60-second period and that 24% of the hires in a recent training class were relatives of LAFD firefighters.
Mayor Eric Garcetti has said that he is pushing ahead on some of the proposals, such as merging the LAFD’s dispatch operations with the Police Department call center. He also said he wants agency managers to work with outside experts and use technology to help make key decisions, including deploying rescuers in the field.
“We want the Los Angeles Fire Department to be cutting-edge and data-driven, and we want to grow that expertise,” said the mayor’s spokesman, Yusef Robb.
Some of the report’s key recommendations, such as putting civilians in the dispatch center, could face opposition on the City Council. The union representing thousands of firefighters said Monday that hiring civilians in the dispatch center and spreading out paramedics to more units would “have negative consequences for public and firefighter safety.”
“On first blush, I don’t like it,” said Capt. Frank Lima, president of United Firefighters of Los Angeles City. “It’s like doing a review of the game of baseball and not talking to any baseball players and just talking to managers and sportswriters who didn’t play the game.”
He faulted the study’s authors for failing to interview sufficient rank-and-file members and not including union officials in the review process early on. A number of firefighters were consulted and the union was offered an opportunity to comment after a draft was prepared, said Andrew Rea, a consultant who helped oversee preparation of the report.
City Council President Herb Wesson said through a spokesman that he is reserving detailed comment until he reads the report.
“It’s something we’re going to take seriously,” Wesson said. “This council is committed to taking whatever action is needed to enhance public safety.”
Interim Fire Chief James G. Featherstone said he welcomed the recommendations and had already acted on some, including hiring a civilian public information director and seeking a civilian expert to oversee the department’s technology efforts.
“The chief is open to studying all of the recommendations contained within the report,” spokesman Peter Sanders said.
The report cited flaws in the LAFD’s hiring process, saying the written exam given to applicants should be graded and other steps taken to better ensure the most qualified candidates advance.
The consultants also said the department should explore new efficiency measures, such as closing less-busy firehouses during slow hours and replacing heavy fire engines with lighter-weight vehicles when responding to medical emergencies, which account for more than 80% of calls for help.
A number of the recommendations deal with the evolving workload at the agency, which has shifted from fighting fires to answering emergency medical calls. The shift has been so profound, the report said, that the department should change its name, as agencies elsewhere have. Dallas, for example, has renamed its fire service the Dallas Fire-Rescue Department.
The city should also conduct a pilot program using civilian ambulances to transport victims to hospitals, similar to a model used by the Los Angeles County Fire Department, the report said. That could reduce the time LAFD medics are tied up in crowded emergency rooms, help control costs and make better use of existing fire resources, the consultants found.
The Los Angeles Fire Department operates more than 130 ambulances, most staffed by two higher-trained paramedics. Others respond to less critical emergencies with two emergency medical technicians.
The consultants said the city would be better served by having one paramedic on every ambulance, accompanied by an emergency medical technician. Some paramedics would be reassigned so that every fire engine crew would include one.
That model is strongly opposed by the union and was turned back a decade ago when it was proposed for the LAFD. Department paramedics say they operate as teams and both members are needed to inject drugs and conduct advanced procedures during cardiac arrest and other life-threatening emergencies.
Rea said that because engines respond with paramedic units, “you’ll still have as many paramedics on scene.”