L.A. council members call for accurate Fire Department figures

The Los Angeles City Council made deep cuts to the Fire Department last year after being presented with data that overstated how quickly rescuers arrived at the scene of citizen calls for help.

In presentations made by fire officials to council members as they considered reducing fire engines and ambulances at more than one-fifth of the city’s stations, the department said first responders arrived at the scene of a medical emergency within five minutes nearly 80% of the time. Similar statistics were also included in a Fire Commission report to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

But those figures inaccurately portrayed department performance, according to new numbers released by the department last week. The new statistics show that medical rescuers actually arrived on scene within five minutes only 64% of the time in 2008 and hit that mark even less in the following two years.

The department’s statistician said he could not explain the discrepancy between the new numbers and the numbers in the Fire Commission report.

Last week, the Fire Department acknowledged that for years it provided lawmakers with misleading statistics that showed firefighters were on scene in less than five minutes roughly 80% of the time. They said they had used the wrong formula to calculate those reports.

Some City Council members said Monday they were disturbed about voting on the cuts based on inaccurate information. Councilwoman Jan Perry said that neither the Fire Department nor the mayor’s office, which called for the budget reductions, informed her that response time numbers were not properly calculated.

“We were the ones casting the vote,” said Perry, who is running for mayor. “If someone was aware that we were basing a vote on erroneous information, it would have been their responsibility to tell the council that.”

Perry said she wanted an “unbiased third-party audit” of the department’s response times, going back to at least 2010.

Councilman Dennis Zine, chairman of the council’s auditing committee, said he planned to probe the department’s statistics.

“We need to get honest numbers,” Zine said. “If they’re not being honest and credible that creates a huge problem. Fudging numbers is not acceptable at all.”

Fire officials told The Times the department had traditionally used a six-minute time frame to calculate response statistics — even though their reports used a five-minute time frame. The department also only counted responses to the most critical emergencies, which also improved the performance figures.

Two years ago, officials began adjusting their calculations to bring them in line with the widely accepted five-minute standard of the National Fire Protection Assn., which says departments should hit that goal 90% of the time.

One community activist who opposed the budget cuts and who has studied the response times in Los Angeles, said it was troubling that flawed data appeared to have been used in decision-making. He said it was symptomatic of a larger City Hall problem. “Statistics are put forward to accomplish a goal, and nobody is held accountable,” he said.

The issue surfaced last week after mayoral candidate Austin Beutner wrote an online column criticizing Perry and Councilman Eric Garcetti for approving Fire Department cuts. Citing agency reports, Beutner complained about a steep increase in response times.

But after his attack — and a Times inquiry — the department pushed back, saying Beutner had mixed the old and new response time statistics.

Villaraigosa’s office said the change in the department data was not misleading but simply reflects changes in the formula for assessing response times. A spokesman for the mayor said Villaraigosa was not informed of the changes until over the weekend.

Across the country, departments use different metrics to assess how well they respond to medical emergencies.

Fire officials elsewhere say meeting the five-minute response goal is difficult, but possible with vigilant monitoring of calls and units in the field. In San Francisco, officials rely in part on “dynamically deployed” ambulances that are moved from station to station throughout the day depending on call volume.

“We have people looking at that constantly,” said Mindy Talmadge, spokeswoman for the San Francisco Fire Department. So far this year, she said, the city’s first responders have arrived on the scene in emergency medical calls within four minutes and 52 seconds 90% of the time.

The L.A. Fire Department also hopes to use statistics to better allocate resources, officials say. Chief Brian Cummings said he planned to move several fire crews around the city based on data analysis.

Cummings, who was promoted to chief last year, was a main architect of the 2011 redeployment. The department said the plan would save nearly $200 million over three years.

The first cuts to the department came in 2009, when the cash-strapped city began a program of rotating ambulance and fire truck closures. Within months, the department acknowledged that critical minutes were lost in several emergency medical calls, including one in which rescuers took more than 10 minutes to arrive at a Bel-Air home where a 3-year-old boy had drowned in a swimming pool.

“Every minute that you add to a response to a heart attack, or the beginning of a fire, that could actually be a life and death issue,” Councilman Paul Koretz said of the cuts. He said the city needs to know “the real, perfectly accurate numbers.”

“It’s very disconcerting that the numbers on which we base significant life and death policy decisions…are flawed.”

Lawmakers say that with a $220-million budget shortfall, it’s unlikely the Fire Department will recoup any emergency units this year. But the issue could be kept alive in the mayor’s race, in which several contenders are vying to replace Villaraigosa.

City Controller Wendy Greuel, one mayoral candidate, said her office plans to investigate the response times and look at the effects of the cuts.

“It is clear that there was a misrepresentation,” she said. “If standards changed, if numbers changed, the public should be informed of that, as well as leadership.”

Los Angeles Times staff writer Ben Welsh contributed to this report.