L.A. fire chief offers new explanation of flawed response times


Los Angeles Fire Chief Brian Cummings drew more criticism Tuesday after he offered yet another explanation of how his agency has calculated and reported emergency response times to city officials.

Speaking to the Fire Commission, Cummings said his department used computerized projections of response times — instead of actual performance data — in reports about pending budget cuts that were presented to the commission and City Council members last year.

Using hypothetical models that assumed full staffing, the reports calculated that the Fire Department would have arrived on the scene of medical emergencies within five minutes nearly 80% of the time in 2008. The same analysis showed that after the proposed cuts the figure would decline only slightly.

In reality, officials say, the department met the five-minute goal only 64% of the time in 2008, and now meets it only 60% of the time.

Fire Commission President Genethia Hudley-Hayes and City Council members said Tuesday that they were not told that forecasts of expected response times were used in department reports.

Hudley-Hayes told reporters she did not believe the department had intentionally misled officials. But she said, “We should have been apprised of the fact that they used projections at one point as opposed to using actual data about what was happening on a day-to-day basis.”

The department has been buffeted by questions about its response times in recent weeks, as well as concerns about technical problems in its emergency dispatching system.

For years, officials acknowledge, the agency used a six-minute time frame to calculate medical emergency response times. But the results were expressed in public reports as being less than five minutes, making the department’s performance appear to be better than it was. A new formula that conforms to widely accepted national standards and counts only calls responded to in less than five minutes is now being used, officials said.

During the commission meeting, Cummings acknowledged that he had “not been clear in communicating the department’s use of data.” He defended the use of projections, saying they made it possible to “compare like simulations to like simulations.” Cummings helped draft the plan to cut the budget before being named chief last summer.

The projections were included in reports given to City Council members last spring as lawmakers considered a plan to cut fire engines and ambulances from more than one-fifth of the agency’s 106 firehouses.

Councilman Dennis Zine said he would not have voted for the cuts if he knew the department was getting to emergencies in less than five minutes only 64% of the time, a figure lower than the 90% goal set by the National Fire Protection Assn.

“In my 40-plus years with the city I’ve never heard of response times being projections,” said Zine, a former Los Angeles Police Department officer. “I’m appalled that they’re switching these numbers and coming up with different excuses.”

A spokesman for Councilman Eric Garcetti, who is running for mayor, questioned why the department used projections for 2008, rather than actual performance data.

“This is like ‘The Twilight Zone,’ ” Yusef Robb said. “How do you project the past?”

The controversy over response times, which involves a fundamental public safety issue affecting every corner of the city and hundreds of thousands of residents each year, has resonated with candidates jockeying to succeed Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Garcetti and Jan Perry, another mayoral hopeful, called for outside reviews of the Fire Department’s methodology Tuesday. Another mayoral candidate, Controller Wendy Greuel, has launched her own audit. And former investment banker and onetime Villaraigosa deputy Austin Beutner continued to blame his mayoral rivals at City Hall for reducing the Fire Department budget.

The Fire Commission also was briefed on the department’s dispatch system, which broke down March 7 and has caused delays in some responses to emergencies. The Times reported that the problems caused a woman with a severed finger to wait nearly 45 minutes for paramedics and also delayed firefighters during a South Los Angeles structure fire in which two people died.

Battalion Chief Brian Schultz placed part of the blame on a piece of aging equipment that he said “was known to have problems,” and which department officials asked to be replaced five years ago. Now, $5.4 million in grant money needed to make the fix has been identified, he said, and bids will be solicited in several weeks.