L.A. fire chief blames slower response times on budget cuts
Los Angeles Fire Chief Brian Cummings turned the tables on City Council members Tuesday, blaming increased 911 response times on budget cuts approved by lawmakers.
“You gave us a budget,” Cummings said during a nearly two-hour City Hall hearing. “We’re giving you the most effective Fire Department that we can within that budget.”
Cummings was summoned to appear before the council after he failed to produce a plan to improve service and response times, which have grown longer since budget cuts were ordered three years ago after the economic downturn.
The council asked for the blueprint in April. On Tuesday, Cummings was given an additional 60 days to submit the plan.
Cummings blamed the delay on the department’s data problems, which have been the subject of multiple investigations by city auditors and outside experts. Years of response time data were found to be flawed and the LAFD has accurate data only for the last two to three months, Cummings said.
Reliable performance data from a longer period is needed before changes in the department deployment plan can be recommended, he said. Improvements will require more funding, he added.
“The simple answer is money,” Cummings said. “The way we improve response times is by putting more resources in the field.”
The department’s performance has been under scrutiny since March when fire officials acknowledged producing inaccurate response time data that made it appear rescuers were getting to emergencies faster than they actually were.
Fire officials are dealing with other embarrassments. Federal officials are investigating whether confidential information was obtained illegally on hundreds of patients who rode in Fire Department ambulances, according to a city lawyer. The department also has been criticized by the city’s top budget officials for going over its budget by millions of dollars.
On Tuesday morning, The Times reported on a YouTube video titled “Firehouse Burlesque Hula Hooping” showing a woman in high-heels and tight shorts dancing with a hoop at a Venice fire station. The video was a promotion for Hoopnotica, a fitness company. The firm’s chief executive said the shoot was unplanned, lasted no more than 30 minutes and that no money changed hands.
Last year, firefighters from the same Venice firehouse and another station were investigated for allowing fire engines to be used in porn shoots. Shortly after those videos surfaced, the controversy spread to Cummings when the chief acknowledged that he once posed for racy photos with a bikini-clad woman when he was stationed in Venice as a captain.
Cummings said the department was investigating the hula hoop video. Councilman Mitchell Englander, who chairs the council’s Public Safety Committee, said firehouse antics are “another part of the culture we have to change.”
At the council meeting, Cummings and other fire officials reviewed the recent findings of a task force formed to examine the department’s various data management troubles.
Councilman Eric Garcetti said he was happy the data problems were being addressed, but said he wanted a detailed plan for service improvements.
He also said the department needs stronger leadership. “I want somebody fighting for this department,” he said. “Talk to your firefighters out there. They don’t feel that is happening.”
After the economic downturn, the council and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa cut the LAFD’s annual budget by $88 million — from $561 million in 2008 to $473 million in 2011.
The cuts led to service “brownouts,” which took units out of service on a rotating basis, and which were eventually replaced by a new deployment plan. Cummings, an assistant chief at the time who oversaw development of the redeployment, predicted response times would match pre-recession levels following the changes. But investigations by The Times and City Controller Wendy Greuel found response times for medical emergencies have increased over the last four years.
Councilman Richard Alarcon admonished his colleagues, saying they should have known their budget cuts would lead to slower response times.
“Even Barry Bonds can’t hit home runs with a plastic bat,” said Alarcon, who voted against the cuts.
This spring, responding to concerns about the department’s performance and the controversy over the accuracy of its data, lawmakers added back $40 million to the department budget. Cummings has requested an additional $50 million in next year’s budget.