Once on fast track, L.A. fire chief faces tough scrutiny
Brian Cummings became the man of the moment two years ago when Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa needed more than $50 million slashed from the Fire Department.
A second-generation LAFD firefighter who quit college to follow in his father’s footsteps, Cummings had risen steadily in the department over three decades. An assistant chief, he helped devise a cost-cutting plan to trim engines and ambulances.
Cummings, who is personable and energetic, campaigned across the city with a polished PowerPoint presentation showing that even with the cuts, the city could have 911 response times similar to those of pre-recession days, when stations were fully staffed.
The plan was approved, and when the fire chief retired soon after, Villaraigosa reached past a list of recommended candidates and picked Cummings to lead the LAFD, praising him as the “visionary architect” of the new staffing plan.
Now Cummings’ leadership and the crowning achievement that helped elevate him are under harsh scrutiny, including from past allies. Lawmakers have summoned Cummings to appear before the City Council on Tuesday to explain why his department has been “unwilling or unable to develop a plan to reduce response times and improve public safety.”
A wave of outside investigations have found major flaws in the department’s performance data following an admission in March that fire officials for years had released flawed figures that overstated how fast rescuers arrived at emergencies. A department task force put the blame on unqualified staff and outdated computer systems, problems also cited in audits by the city controller and others.
The controller’s report also found that overall response times under Cummings’ new deployment model were longer than when stations were fully staffed. A series of Times investigations later found wide disparities in how quickly city rescuers reached different parts of the city, as well as delays in how long it took dispatchers to process 911 calls.
The chief argues he’s done the best he can with limited funds and has recently pledged to reduce response times if he gets more resources.
City leaders say Cummings’ varying explanations of response time data discrepancies added to concern and confusion at City Hall: He has both bristled at questions about the accuracy of department data and apologized for using inconsistent formulas to produce reports for decision-makers.
One sign of growing frustration with Cummings is the unusually pointed criticism from fire Commissioner Alan Skobin. After nine years as a police commissioner, Skobin was moved to the LAFD oversight panel by Villaraigosa after the response time controversy broke.
Skobin told The Times that Cummings has not been committed to ensuring that the department’s performance reporting is accurate, which he says has undermined public confidence.
“I saw no evidence that he had the professional focus or tools to approach it,” Skobin said. “I mean it was like a ship taking on more and more water and nobody was fixing the hole or bailing out the water.”
Cummings is a nice person “who was probably a terrific firefighter,” Skobin said. But he asserted the chief was a product of an agency that has had difficulty producing leaders of the caliber found at the Police Department.
“After working with problem-solvers, change agents and visionary leaders like [former LAPD chief] Bill Bratton and [current LAPD chief] Charlie Beck for a decade, it has been necessary to significantly lower my expectations when dealing with Chief Cummings and some on his senior administrative staff,” Skobin said.
Villaraigosa did not respond to questions about Cummings. But he noted through a spokesman that response times for fires and some high-priority medical calls had improved after the adoption of Cummings’ plan compared with an earlier period of cost-saving cutbacks ordered by the mayor and the City Council. Those cuts, made in 2009 after the economic collapse, shut down a number of rescue units on a rotating basis.
Cummings could not be reached for comment in recent days. But in an interview earlier this year, he said the focus on response times was a distraction. He complained that other measures of his force’s superior emergency service had been ignored.
“This one little tiny piece of it has flashed up in the headlines,” he said.
Cummings has been steeped in LAFD culture since childhood. His father, Lewis, was a city firefighter who invited firehouse friends to dinner at the family’s View Park home. His brother, Lorenzo Armstead, is a captain in the Fire Department.
Cummings attended Loyola High School and enrolled at UCLA. His father, who began his career at a segregated firehouse, hoped his son would become a doctor, lawyer or join another profession. But Cummings said he was “an average and apathetic student” more drawn to the thrill of lights and sirens than to the classroom. He dropped out after less than a year to join the LAFD.
His supporters include Fire Commission President Genethia Hudley-Hayes, who says Cummings is the right person for the job. “This fire chief has provided the proper leadership and he’s had a lot of courage in what he does,” she said at a recent news conference.
But City Councilman Mitchell Englander, who chairs the council’s Public Safety Committee, said Cummings has been “reactive and defensive,” and not open to outside suggestions.
Months before the department acknowledged problems with its response time data, Englander said he urged the chief and his staff to create a more sophisticated system to track emergency responses in real-time, along the lines of the Police Department’s much-praised COMPSTAT crime-tracking program. Englander said he suggested fire officials bring in outside experts to review LAFD data.
“They said no, that they didn’t want to do anything like it,” the councilman recalled.
Cummings has said limited funding forced him to choose between better managing data and providing emergency service. “It’s difficult to prioritize data analysis over an ambulance,” he said.
Fire chiefs before Cummings were given repeated warnings about the reliability of the department’s performance data, records and interviews show.
In 2002, an audit by then-Controller Laura Chick found the department’s “outdated” response-time tracking system should not be used to make decisions on staffing stations. Four years later, a Police Department data expert was sent to the LAFD to make recommendations on updating the agency’s data system.
That specialist, Jeffrey Godown, was sent back to the department this spring by Villaraigosa. Godown said he found the report he completed six years earlier sitting in a desk drawer, apparently untouched, in the same conference room where he presented it to fire officials.
Godown left the LAFD in June, complaining to the Fire Commission that the department had not given him the resources to do his job properly. He told commissioners he heard LAFD commanders argue that “it’s really not that big a deal” if response time figures were off by several seconds.
“Being partly right does not work in this business,” Godown told the panel, adding that “a complete overhaul of the mentality of the command staff” was needed. “The bottom line is fire personnel are great at putting out fires and saving lives, but they shouldn’t be in the data-mining business,” he said.
Data mining is what Cummings did to develop his cost-cutting deployment plan. He and other officials used call load statistics and response times to decide where to eliminate fire engines and ambulances. More than one-fifth of the city’s stations lost units, with a smaller number of stations gaining them.
The plan was designed to save nearly $200 million over three years and end unpopular “brownouts” that took units out of service at rotating stations starting in 2009.
At a neighborhood meeting in Century City, Cummings said his plan could produce response times comparable to or better than those achieved before the brownouts, according to community activist Mike Eveloff, who was there.
But those improvements were not realized, according to studies by City Controller Wendy Greuel and The Times. Greuel’s audit found that overall average response times — counting from the time the LAFD received 911 medical calls — remained 21 seconds longer than before the brownouts.
Last month, the department task force that included experts from USC, Rand Corp. and the Police Department called for changes to correct data problems. Skobin and Englander said they were disappointed that Cummings didn’t seem to embrace the recommendations.
Cummings has not said whether he expects to adjust his deployment plan now that flaws have been found in the data used to create it.
Walter Duffy, a captain at busy Station 9 in downtown’s skid row, hopes the chief will rethink deployment. His station lost a fire engine in the cutbacks, and Duffy said his crews were stretched thin.
He said he wanted to see clearer direction from the chief. “We don’t know where we’re going,” Duffy said.
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