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Safety Net Stretched to the Limit : Housing: More and more people live in unsafe conditions in some areas of the inner city. But the number of firefighters has declined over the last decade.


The deadly fire that swept through a Westlake apartment house Monday is a grim illustration of the challenges facing budget-strapped emergency personnel in the inner city.

During the past decade, scores of immigrants flocked to the inner city, often living in crowded, unsafe conditions such as those where the blaze erupted Monday. That growth in population, officials said, has led to greater demand for services ranging from firefighting to food and shelter--often provided by groups such as the Red Cross.

In the case of the Fire Department, fewer firefighters are currently on duty than in 1978. And the ratio of firefighters to residents in Los Angeles is among the lowest of the state's major cities, officials said.

"We've been tremendously impacted by budget cuts, there's no doubt," said Capt. Steve Ruda, a department spokesman.

In 1990, the fire station closest to the Westlake apartment building was the busiest in the nation, responding to more than 20,000 calls.

During the past decade, the number of calls that the department responded to citywide nearly doubled, fire officials said.

Since 1978, the city's population grew by about 17%, but the department's strength declined by 18%, from 925 firefighters on duty each day to the current 762, said Battalion Chief Bill Bamattre.

He said Los Angeles has one firefighter per 1,300 residents; Oakland has one firefighter per 800 residents; Sacramento, one per 810 residents; and San Jose, one per 1,180 residents.

Fewer firefighters means the department's resources are spread thinner, which has an impact on everything from fighting an apartment fire to carrying out rescue and emergency medical training. "We're really asking the members of our department to become more specialized, but at the same time we're asking them to maintain ongoing programs," Bamattre said. "It becomes very difficult to do."

Ruda said the department has attempted to keep up with the city's changing population by actively recruiting Spanish-speaking firefighters. Out of 3,000 uniformed personnel, 215 are Spanish speakers.

Language was not a problem during Monday's fire, he said, noting that the station nearest the apartment has two Spanish-speaking firefighters per shift.

Red Cross disaster officials also were concerned with their ability to respond to a larger fire or disaster such as the one Monday, in which language and cultural differences may mean special needs.

"We don't have nearly enough volunteers to cover something like this if it happens on a larger scale," said Vicki Garcia, a diversity specialist with the Los Angeles chapter of the American Red Cross.

Language is just one problem with which disaster response groups must contend. Agencies such as the Red Cross are also working to diversify their response in Los Angeles and similar cities, where changing demographics and an influx of Central American immigrants has changed the profile of who is likely to be a victim.

"In many Latin America countries the Red Cross is run completely different from us," said Luis Ochoa, a disaster coordinator for the Long Beach chapter of the Red Cross. "The Red Cross is often tied in with the government. So when these people come to this country they think the Red Cross is tied into the government. So, if they are illegal, they may think we might turn them in."

But for some groups Monday's fire was simply a reminder that little has changed in neighborhoods such as Westlake.

"This is an area that is forgotten by everyone until a tragedy like this occurs," said Delmy Ruiz, director of human services at the Central American Refugee Center. The group is working with the Red Cross to help coordinate funeral plans for families who lost relatives in the fire.

"In this area there is very little attention given to the conditions these people live in," Ruiz said. "There is total disregard for the most minimal things and the most important things. The owners often think that because their tenants are immigrants they don't need to bother with the building."

She said the problem of helping areas with diverse populations is further hampered by the lack of Spanish speakers in local police and fire departments.

"I've even had to translate for people on the street trying to call the police or the paramedics because they don't speak English."

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