In a bid to roll back cuts that followed the economic downturn five years ago, the Los Angeles Fire Department is considering a request to boost its budget by nearly 10% next year, pushing annual spending to a high of more than $600 million.
The proposed increases, which would need to be approved by the City Council and mayor, would go toward hiring 280 new firefighters with an overhauled recruitment effort and fund further improvements to the department’s widely criticized technology, according to a draft debated by the city Fire Commission on Tuesday.
“We have been frozen in time,” said interim Fire Chief James G. Featherstone, who was appointed as a caretaker after new Mayor Eric Garcetti pushed out the previous chief. “Doing more with less is an impossibility. It’s a nice bumper sticker, but it makes no sense.”
For the first time in five years, the LAFD is funded to form a class of new recruits next summer. Since the last class, the number of sworn firefighters has dropped from more than 3,500 to 3,234 through retirements and attrition.
The draft budget proposal would aim to offset those losses by ramping up hiring to welcome 280 firefighters in five new training classes.
However, even if the new hires are funded, fire officials forecast that overall staffing levels will fall short of where they were before the downturn because of scheduled future retirements, an overall increase in firefighter salaries and other costs.
The average city firefighter’s pay increased from roughly $106,000 in 2005 to more than $132,000 in 2012, when including base salary, overtime and other compensation, according to a Times analysis of city data.
Should the new classes be approved, Featherstone said the LAFD must “be a lot more aggressive” in appealing to a diverse set of applicants. He suggested the department could hire private companies to improve an in-house recruitment effort he called “embarrassing.”
Since the end of the segregation of predominantly white firehouses in the civil-rights era, the department has struggled to end race and gender issues in its ranks. Decades later, the rank and file are more diverse, but costly discrimination lawsuits have resurged recently and the staff remains overwhelming male, with the number of female firefighters stuck at less than 3% for decades.
“Everybody recognizes this Fire Department has tremendous potential, has incredible people, and also in many fundamental ways is broken,” Garcetti said Monday. “It has suffered from poor leadership, from not enough accountability and being slow to change, whether that’s the implementation of technology, whether it’s addressing problems like response time or the ongoing costs of litigation when these problems fester.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, Fire Commissioner Andrew Glazier also called for the creation of a new management position, titled chief information officer, to oversee all of the department’s technology efforts.
Many of the Fire Department’s problems have been blamed on outdated technology. The mayor, members of the city Fire Commission, the county’s Civil Grand Jury and the City Council have called for a sweeping overhaul of the department’s systems.
Expensive upgrades are in the works, but officials say they will take years to complete. The pending improvements include installation of real-time GPS tracking devices on rescue vehicles, the replacement of the faulty database at the heart of its 911 dispatch center and fixes to the fire station alarm system.
The department has promised to develop a new data analysis unit modeled on a highly touted LAPD team, a reform called for after department officials admitted last year to misstating statistics that measure how long it takes rescuers to respond to 911 calls.
Subsequent Times investigations found unreported delays in processing 911 calls and summoning the nearest medical rescuers from other jurisdictions, as well as wide gaps in response times in different parts of the city.
The new budget draft also included earmarks for new technology projects aimed to improve the 911 dispatch center and other systems.
Glazier argued the LAFD needs a dedicated new position to coordinate all the change.
“It’s really important to consider doing something rational,” he said. “Be able to really guide the department into bringing us into the 21st century and make sure all our systems talk to each other.”
Times staff writer Michael Finnegan contributed to this report.