Burned by the L.A. Fire Dept.

For years, we’ve been told that the Los Angeles Fire Department could withstand bruising budget cuts without a significant impact on its emergency response times. Yet it’s hard to verify whether that’s true because it turns out the numbers have been fudged. Not only does the city need to un-fudge them, it needs to take a hard look at whether staff and equipment reductions are endangering residents.

During its budget deliberations, the City Council was given faulty data on response times by the Fire Department, which last year claimed that its first responders arrived on the scene of an emergency within five minutes nearly 80% of the time. In response to a Times inquiry, fire officials have now acknowledged that they’ve been giving bad data to decision-makers for years — apparently, the department had been calculating response times within six minutes and passing them off as response times within five minutes. In reality, the department broke the five-minute barrier only 64% of the time in 2008, and that fell to about 60% last year.

The five-minute deadline for rescuers is important for a couple of reasons. First, it’s the standard from the National Fire Protection Assn., which sets nationwide consensus guidelines for fire departments and says they should beat that time on 90% of calls. More important, it’s a key lifesaving time frame, because if people in cardiac arrest suffer oxygen deprivation for between four and six minutes, permanent brain damage can occur. Longer response times are likely to result in more deaths.

Severe revenue shortfalls since 2009 have forced a lot of harmful cuts to municipal services, but few have been riskier — or more damaging to the city government’s cardinal mission of protecting its residents — than the trims to the Fire Department, whose budget has been cut by 16%. Acknowledging the painful reality of L.A.'s revenue shortfall and the need for shared sacrifice, we endorsed the most recent of those cuts last year, when the city saved $53 million by eliminating fire trucks and ambulances from about one-fourth of L.A.'s 106 fire stations. But we did so based on assurances from fire officials that the cuts wouldn’t affect response times. Now we’re not so sure.

City Controller Wendy Greuel says her office will investigate response times and whether they’ve been affected by the cuts, and that’s overdue. The city should also work on discovering who was behind the Fire Department’s misleading use of statistics, and why. And with a $220-million budget shortfall looming this year, the mayor and council must — as they have failed to do in the past — identify nonessential services and try to confine the cuts to them.