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Baffled Firemen Find It Easier to Battle Blazes Than Burglars

January 12, 1986|GEORGE STEIN | Times Staff Writer

The score: Burglars 6, firefighters 0.

The burglars took the lead 16 months ago when they scored the first hit in a string of burglaries against Station 95 of the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

At 7:55 p.m. on Sept. 5, 1984, everyone in the station rolled out for a rubbish-bin fire near 155th and Main streets. It was a small fire, and the firemen put it out quickly.

Time away from the station: 10 minutes.

In that short time, however, someone else was working just as fast as the firemen. The thief somehow opened the locked door at the rear of the station and stole a brand-new color television set valued at $700 and a $260 pay-TV signal decoder.

"This was clear to me that the fire was set and they waited for us to leave," said Fire Capt. Tony DiMiceli, who is based at the station just east of Gardena.

Still Making Payments

The 12 firemen of Los Angeles County Fire Station 95 are still making payments on that color television set, and they have lost a lot more since it was stolen.

On March 22, 1985, as the firemen freed a woman trapped in a wrecked car, $100 was taken from one man's locker, $40 from another's and $50 from the supply locker.

On Oct. 5, while they were out on another rescue call, a second color television set vanished.

One week after that burglary, the locks at the station were changed. The same night, a burglar made off with a microwave oven after crawling through the station's bathroom window while firefighters were putting out an arson blaze at Vanguard Junior High School.

The firemen used a stick to keep a sliding window secured, but on Nov. 8, as they put out a truck fire nearby, a thief broke the window and stole a set of car keys, a gold ring, $30--and more.

"My hat was stolen," lamented DiMiceli.

"I lost a badge," grumbled Capt. George Webber.

Chain-Link Fence

Soon afterward, a chain-link fence topped with three strands of barbed wire went up. A thief came over it on Dec. 22 and got into the supply shed.

"Every time he has broken in, we have been on a run or a response," said Capt. Charles Johnson.

"As soon as we are gone, they would hit us," said firefighter Renaldo Mescudi. "It is just too planned out. They know when we are not here."

Sheriff's investigators, who have tried everything from stake-outs and decoy scanner calls to fingerprint analysis, admit they are stumped.

"It is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. . . . Burglaries are one of the hardest ones to prove. . . . You have absolutely no independent witnesses," said Sheriff's Detective Mike Pippin, who has been investigating the burglaries.

Frustrated Firemen

"I would love to catch this guy. I once spent about five hours waiting for this guy to come in. We are as frustrated as (the firemen) are."

Los Angeles County Fire Chief John W. Englund said burglaries at fire stations, while not frequent, do occur from time to time.

Fire Department spokesman Gordon Pearson said the burglaries at Station 95 are the first "in a long time." In keeping with departmental policy, the station is left unattended when a call comes in.

Officials, however, are working on ways to increase security.

"In the old days, the bays were left open," Pearson said. "You can't do that anymore. You end up losing equipment, and guys losing stuff."

Automated Door

An automated door now shuts off the bays after the fire engine leaves the station. Living quarters and equipment areas also are locked.

But the office remains open--in case someone arrives at the fire station and has to use the phone for an emergency.

Englund said station offices also will be locked once the Fire Department installs outside hot line phones to the 911 emergency network over the next two years. The chief said that measure is needed to protect valuable computer terminals in all the station offices that are part of an electronic network being phased in.

Station 95 is scheduled to get its outside 911 hot line in several weeks.

Capt. Webber said the station is particularly vulnerable because it is in the middle of an industrial area, isolated from homeowners who serve as burglary look-outs in other areas.

Industrial Area

"Because it is an industrial area," Webber said, "there aren't any of the good public around to see them come in. . . . You can't tell who sees these people. . . . We work in an area where (crime) is expected."

Located in the 100 block of West Redondo Beach Boulevard, the station is across the street from a noisy, dusty cement-mixing firm. It sits between an electroplating firm and a yard filled with dilapidated cars.

The station, one of 12 county fire stations in the South Bay, covers an area bounded by El Segundo Boulevard, Gardena Boulevard, Figueroa Street and Central Avenue.

Firemen complain that the thefts hurt because they, not the department, must pay for what was stolen from them. The county carries no insurance that would cover the thefts. And is it particularly galling to them that the thefts have occurred when they were out performing public service.

They are on their third television set now. But this one is firmly chained down.

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