Column: Weary L.A. firefighters speak up

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Last week, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the city’s fire chief said there’s no cause for worry about slower response times after severe cutbacks at LAFD.

So why am I still worried?

Partly, it’s because there still hasn’t been a good explanation for the mumbo jumbo we’ve been fed about the different formulas used to determine response times. My colleagues Kate Linthicum, Robert Lopez and Dave Zahniser have reported that the Fire Department gave misleading information to city officials, reporting that response time was within five minutes 80% of the time when the real number was closer to 60%.

Nobody was lying, we’re told. But the Fire Department has now switched to a more accurate formula for tracking response times.


How hard can this be?

Your house is on fire, you call the Fire Department, and they show up in either four minutes, five, six, 10, whatever.

Does it have to be more complicated than that?

It was on the basis of the rosier information that the mayor and council agreed to big cuts. Now Fire Chief Brian Cummings admits the department should have made clear that it had switched to a different formula, and both he and Villaraigosa tell us both formulas were accurate.


They also said public safety hasn’t been compromised by the mothballing of equipment as part of a plan to save $200 million over three years.

How could it not be compromised?

I’ve been talking to firefighters, and they tell me they’re being run ragged to cover station closures; they say the dispatch system is on the fritz; and they say routine equipment repairs can now take months because of a shrunken maintenance crew.

“This department is being held together with bubble gum, baling wire and duct tape,” says Pat McOsker, president of United Firefighters of Los Angeles City.

“Forty percent of the time we are not getting there in time to prevent brain death,” said McOsker, referring to the length of time it generally takes for someone who’s not breathing to suffer lasting injury.


You’d expect that argument from a union boss, but McOsker’s not the only critic here.

Austin Beutner, a former Villaraigosa deputy who’s now running for mayor, has stirred things up by digging into response times and other dirty little secrets. He said some parts of the city aren’t getting close to a five-minute response 60% of the time, and even if they were, why would that be acceptable?

“We should be talking about why we’re not at 90%,” said Beutner, who pointed out that San Francisco is pretty close to that number.

“I heard the City Council stand up and brag when they made this last round of cuts about how this was going to make us safer,” said Beutner, who ripped his former City Hall mates — some of whom he’s now running against in the mayor’s race — for not being more inclined toward critical analysis. “The buck stops … with those who were elected to oversee all of this, and what have this council and mayor been doing the last three or four years?”

Mid-City resident Mike Eveloff has been doing his own spade work, demanding Fire Department records and crunching numbers. When you remove equipment from service and shutter or partially shutter fire stations, you’re playing a game of Russian roulette, said Eveloff.

“You see them on longer and longer runs because they don’t have as many firefighters. As an example, my station, 92, they were sent 14 miles away to the eastern part of Hollywood with red lights and siren. It’s happening all the time,” said Eveloff.

“If you look into the eyes of these guys, they are beat to death.”

And so, they tell me, is the equipment.

Tony Mastrolia, senior heavy duty mechanic, said a hiring freeze, early retirement and defections to the Department of Water and Power — which inexplicably pays mechanics far more, thanks to the agency’s union clout with elected officials — have slashed his staff by about 30%. Also, a heavy equipment repair unit in the Valley was shut down, so those trucks now have to schlep all the way downtown.


So it takes longer for trucks to get serviced, said Mastrolia. And when they’re down, it means the much older reserve fleet is rolled out, “and now those are breaking down.”

E. Max Hengst, a 28-year veteran and now a captain at Station 76 in the Cahuenga Pass area, said the troops are still professionals with a lot of pride, but “morale in this department is as low as it’s ever been.” His crew has answered calls as far away as Woodland Hills, he said, and the busy pace and long runs take their toll. Hengst wrote a book, “LAFD FF/PM, Memoirs of an Outside Dog,” in which he makes a sad observation:

“When I first came on, retirement was a sad day for the retiree. Now it seems like the retiree can’t leave soon enough.”

I decided to call a recently retired captain I met under difficult circumstances. It was way back on March 5, 2004, when a cyclist took a nasty fall near the L.A. Zoo.

“You were conscious,” said Ed Banda, the now-retired captain from Station 76, whose crew rushed to my aid in about five minutes as he recalls. “But you were making repetitive statements indicating some sort of head trauma.”

They put me on a board, collared my neck, immobilized my head, and I was whipped over to County-USC Medical Center, where I suffered two seizures in ER but lived to write about it.


Banda said 76 often rolled far from home in later years, thanks to the cutbacks, so 2004 was a good year to fall off a bike.

As for me, I’ve had a full recovery, except for a throbbing pain in my head every time the mayor says don’t worry.