Amid growing criticism from political leaders, Los Angeles’ fire chief acknowledged Tuesday that his agency should have acted sooner to disclose that it had changed the way it calculated emergency response times used in public reports.
“Potentially, we should have put down that we changed our method,” Fire Chief Brian Cummings told reporters at a downtown news conference. “We should have done that.”
In several reports to lawmakers last year, the department included old data that made it appear that its personnel were getting to medical emergencies faster than they actually were. The old data showed that first responders arrived at the scene of a medical emergency within five minutes nearly 80% of the time. But since 2009, the department had been using an improved formula that showed that rescuers actually arrived on scene within five minutes about 64% of the time.
The rosier picture of department performance was cited last year as the City Council weighed budget cuts calling for reductions in fire engines and ambulances at more than one-fifth of the city’s stations. After The Times reported that the department had been putting out misleading performance data for years, several council members expressed concern that cuts were based on bad information and called for audits of the agency’s response data.
After a news conference with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at a fire station, Cummings told reporters the department should have acknowledged that it was using data that it had deemed outdated. But he said the department had been “consistent” because it never used old and new data together to draw comparisons.
The chief and mayor also addressed recent problems with the department’s call-dispatching process. Aging equipment has been malfunctioning in recent weeks, they said, causing firefighters to rely on a backup system.
For a short time, Cummings said, "the calls were not reaching fire stations.” Two calls were significantly affected by the breakdown, he said, although no one died as a result.
The dispatch problems — and the flap over the department’s statistics — coincide with new scrutiny of how the agency has been affected by budget cuts in recent years. At the news conference, Villaraigosa said he has asked the city controller to conduct an “independent analysis to reassure Angelenos.”
Response times have gone up since the first cuts were made in 2009, according to the department’s new data. But the increases had been minimal and tied partly to an increase in call load, the chief and Villaraigosa said. “The city of Los Angeles is safe,” the mayor said. Financially, he said, the city had to make the cuts. “We’re trying to live within our means.”
Cummings and Villaraigosa said that both the old and new data were accurate and that public safety had not been compromised by the city’s loss of fire units.
In the past, the city used a six-minute time frame to calculate response times — but reported them in terms of a five-minute time frame. Two years ago, officials began adjusting their calculations to bring them in line with the widely accepted five-minute response standard of the National Fire Protection Assn., which says departments should hit that goal 90% of the time.
Cummings said that consistently reaching the standard would require some neighborhoods to have firehouses “on almost every block.”
“It’s an expensive standard to hit,” he said. “We’re going to continue to try and hit it as often as we can.”
Pat McOsker, president of United Firefighters of Los Angeles City, distributed a letter at the news conference accusing the department and Villaraigosa of knowingly using false statistics to justify budget cuts that resulted in the public’s “being put in peril.”
When a reporter began reading from the letter and asking the mayor for comment, Villaraigosa responded angrily.
“I wish you could take a picture of him. He’s smiling the whole time,” the mayor said, looking toward McOsker.
“It’s an outrageous letter,” Villaraigosa said. “It is a reflection of the lack of leadership in that union for him to say the kinds of things that he did, because he knows it’s not true.”
The mayor also cited union actions three years ago, when members put up signs at firehouses saying the public was being put at risk by a Villaraigosa-backed plan to shut down fire engines and ambulances on a rotating basis. “He’s the same guy,” the mayor said, “that put up posters telling people that they were going to die.”
McOsker later said the mayor “let his emotions get the best of him. It wasn’t very professional. I think we should focus on public safety and not on the personality clash.”