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Officials Warn Parts of Valley Prone to Fire Hazard : Safety: Chief Manning says manpower shortage forces inspection delays.

May 07, 1993|JOHN L. MITCHELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

While praising firefighters who fought this week's tragic Westlake apartment fire, Los Angeles City Fire Chief Donald O. Manning said Thursday that his department is stretched thin and has trouble keeping up with the increasing load of building inspections needed to prevent such devastating fires.

In his comments before the Los Angeles City Fire Commission, Manning reviewed his department's response to the fire and said there is a staffing shortage that frequently forces firefighters to delay inspections while they respond to emergency calls.

"We've lost big time in these non-emergency activities," he said. "The inspection cycle needs to be improved."

His review before the commission came as The Times reported Thursday that city fire officials failed to follow procedures in forcing the building owner to repair violations, including propped-open doors that officials said contributed to the 10 deaths.

Manning accused the owners of the 69-unit building at 330 S. Burlington Avenue of negligence for failing to establish a 24-hour fire watch as required by fire officials after a blaze in a vacant unit last month.

Richard I. Kaufman, president of the firm that oversees management of the building, was scheduled to be interviewed by arson investigators Thursday, officials said, but did not appear.

"It appears he is trying to avoid us," said Battalion Chief Dean E. Cathey.

Investigators are trying to reschedule the meeting, Cathey said, and a revised list of violations found after the May 3 blaze has been mailed to the owners.

Kaufman has not responded to calls.

After the fires on April 10 and 12, inspectors noted that fire doors--designed to close automatically in the event of fire to retard the spread of flames and smoke--were wedged open and that alarms were not functioning properly.

Inspectors ordered the building's manager to post a fire watch. A guard was to patrol the building's corridors once every half-hour, recording his progress in a logbook. The order called for the posting immediately.

But the owners never posted a guard, according to records and interviews. Under city regulations, the department should have immediately referred the case to the fire marshal's legal office so that an emergency hearing could be scheduled. But there was no indication that such a referral was made.

At Thursday's commission meeting, fire officials said they were investigating how Fire Station 11, one of the busiest in the nation, handled the inspection compliance.

But they defended the department's response, saying the department has a staffing shortage and has a difficult time making owners correct violations promptly.

"We can give notification, but there is only so much authority the department has," said commission President Carl R. Terzian. "We have so many buildings, such a limited budget and limited manpower that . . . our personnel are doing everything they can. We make requests, issue warnings and can only do so much follow up."

Meanwhile, officials released a list of 19 violations found in the building after Monday's fire. They included missing hallway and stairway doors, propped-open fire doors, a locked roof exit and an inoperable fire alarm system. Some of the violations were similar to those in the original citation issued after the April 10 fire.

Manning said the open doors allowed heavy smoke to race through the building.

Firefighters arrived at the scene at 4:38, about four minutes after the alarm went out. But the fire, which started in a second-floor hallway, had raced through the building, trapping people on the floor above. Most of the victims died in a third-floor hallway, overcome by smoke.

In the 35 minutes it took to knock down the fire, Manning said, firefighters rescued scores of people.

"I'm proud of the work they did," Manning told the commission. "Every person out there knew precisely what to do."

Manning said the department will press the City Council's Public Safety Committee for increased staffing and a revision of the sprinkler ordinance so that it applies to buildings such as the Burlington Avenue apartment complex.

Fire officials say that 3,000 firefighters are not enough to handle the increased demands for fire protection and prevention services in the city.

"People think that firefighters just sit around the firehouse and wait for fires--those days are over," said Capt. Stephen J. Ruda, a spokesman for the department.

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