With the swipe of a pen last week, Mayor Eric Garcetti eliminated what he called “one more stupid rule in Los Angeles.” But as a career firefighter, I have to ask: Was the law really so stupid? And what process led to its elimination?
Before the mayor’s action, developers were required to include rooftop helipads when building skyscrapers. The law, enacted in 1974 after two deadly skyscraper fires in Brazil, was intended to save lives. In 1988 it did just that, when five people were rescued by helicopters from the top of the burning First Interstate Bank Building.
And it’s not only in Los Angeles that helipads have saved lives during fires. During the devastating 1980 MGM Grand Hotel fire in Nevada, more than 1,000 people were taken from the roof of the hotel by military helicopters, which made trip after trip to rescue victims. That same year in Puerto Rico, six helicopters flew rescue missions to save people on the rooftop of the burning Dupont Plaza Hotel.
Firefighters in Los Angeles operate under increasingly difficult conditions. Recent cost-cutting by city leaders has caused the Fire Department to eliminate 318 firefighters and paramedics from its workforce and has led to a reduction in firetrucks and ambulances at 22 neighborhood fire stations. The loss of resources, coupled with a growing demand for service, have led to increased response times and a department desperately trying to do more with less.
Still, one great strength of the Los Angeles Fire Department is its aviation unit, which is one of the best in the nation. The department’s pilots operate a fleet of six specialized helicopters, and they are trained in all aspects of fire and rescue operations, including advanced use of night-vision goggles. Current protocols require helicopters to respond to all reported high-rise fires with a crew of firefighters on board. And rooftop access via helicopter can enable firefighters to get more quickly to top floors during skyscraper fires.
The faster firefighters can get to where a fire is burning in a high-rise, the faster they can control and contain it, stopping it from spreading through the building and saving lives. Relying on internal elevators or on climbing hundreds of flights of stairs is certainly one option, but why limit our abilities?
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the Fire Department adopted new procedures and conducted evacuation drills in Los Angeles. Fire and police helicopters practiced simulated aerial evacuations from helipads atop downtown buildings. The drills demonstrated that the city’s fleet of helicopters could evacuate as many as 300 people an hour. This could help in terrorism situations or when an active shooter is loose in a building.
Los Angeles has one of the strictest fire and building codes in the country, and it has served us well in good times and in bad times. Much of the fire code was developed as the result of tragic outcomes — the “catastrophic theory of reform.”
Critics of L.A.'s helipad law say it has led to an uninteresting skyline in the city, since skyscrapers are required to have large flat surfaces on top. They also say the law isn’t necessary because technology such as dedicated fire elevators can accomplish the same goals. But technology can fail, and there are buildings in Los Angeles, including the JW Marriott building, that both add to an interesting skyline and have helipads.
But the law was scrapped by mayoral fiat after what this paper described as a “working group convened by the mayor” concluded it was unnecessary. Wouldn’t it have been better to have a full and open public discussion on the subject? Moreover, we haven’t seen the city moving to require these other protections that critics say make the helipad law obsolete.
Safety laws tend to get passed in the wake of disasters. I hope it won’t take one to get city officials to examine the wisdom of changing the helipad law without thoroughly examining whether that’s a wise idea — and considering whether other laws are needed in its wake.
I have only two goals in raising this issue: I want firefighters and the public to have their best chance to survive a high-rise fire, and I want an open process when decisions are made that could affect that chance. In my 24 years with the department, I’ve seen over and over the ills of political meddling in departmental operations. I’ve seen the revolving door of fire chiefs, with six chiefs in just seven years. And this feels like yet more meddling. I worry that the mayor’s elimination of that “stupid rule” last week might make our job more difficult — and the public less safe.
Patrick Butler is an assistant chief in the Los Angeles Fire Department.
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