Faced with an $11-million budget shortfall, Los Angeles County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman has ordered a fire station in the San Fernando Valley closed, instituted a hiring freeze and plans to eliminate 60 non-firefighter jobs.
The cost-cutting measures, most of which are scheduled to go into effect early next year, will result in 47 fewer firefighters on duty each day, three instead of four fighters assigned to each engine, increased structure damage at some fires and greater physical risks to those battling blazes, Freeman said Wednesday.
"Firefighting is very time critical and labor intensive," he said. "With fewer firefighters, it's going to take longer to get the job done. And a fire company's effectiveness is going to be lower in many cases."
The budget shortfall, Freeman said, is the result of a number of factors--including lower than expected tax revenues, higher gasoline prices and the elimination last spring of a labor contract provision that, in some cases, allowed his department to avoid paying firefighters time and a half for overtime.
"Last year we requested a $275-million allocation and got only $260 million," Freeman said, "so we were $15 million short to start with."
The fire chief said he alerted the County Board of Supervisors to the belt tightening in a Dec. 7 memo. Letters outlining the changes were sent to officials in the 48 cities that contract with the department, which also serves unincorporated areas.
County Fire Station 75 in the Chatsworth area is scheduled for closure March 1. Freeman said fire service in the area will be taken over by the Los Angeles City Fire Department.
There will be no layoffs among firefighters, Freeman said, but more than 120 vacancies that now exist will not be filled and attrition will be allowed to take its course until a total of 141 positions are eliminated. The department currently employs 2,467 firefighters.
The elimination of 60 temporary positions for so-called fire suppression aides, workers who clear brush and cut fire lines, is scheduled for Jan. 1. Freeman said other workers, including inmate laborers, will be able to replace those who get pink slips.
To compensate for the reduced firefighter force, he said, additional engine companies will be sent to large fires.
Supervisor Deane Dana said that no cuts are planned in other county departments. But, he predicted, "Things are going to get worse if rumors of a $4-billion deficit (in the state budget) are true."
Dana, a member of the board's conservative majority that has shielded the Fire and Sheriff's departments from cuts in past years, said there is no money available to prevent the latest reductions.
He pointed out that he and fellow conservative Supervisor Mike Antonovich recently voted to levy new taxes in unincorporated areas to avert cuts in mental health.
"When Deane Dana and Mike Antonovich vote for taxes, you know things are down to the bottom of the barrel," Dana said.
Freeman said he is considering presenting the board with a proposal for a "benefit assessment" for the department.
Dana, however, said he does not support a property tax increase to support the Fire Department. The last time the Fire Department tax was proposed, he said, "we had small riots in the board room."
"We anticipate that there will be an increase in structural fire loss" because of the cutbacks, Freeman said.