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Westminster Orders Probe of Alleged Slow Response to Fire

September 30, 1993|GREG HERNANDEZ and BERT ELJERA | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WESTMINSTER — The city's Fire Department has been accused of not acting fast enough to put out a fire that gutted a Little Saigon martial arts studio last week, and city officials have ordered an investigation into the allegations.

Fire Chief John T. Demonaco Jr. said Wednesday that the city is required to investigate all complaints of slow response or poor performance.

The three-alarm fire destroyed the Viet Nam Vo Dao martial arts school, which is in a two-story commercial complex at 9265 Bishop Place, about 300 yards from a Westminster fire station, officials said.

"I don't understand, we're just 300 yards from the fire station, on the same street, and they could not put out the fire," said instructor Ha Trieu Chung, who was among the approximately 100 people who showed up at Tuesday's City Council meeting to criticize the firefighters.

"The Fire Department is supposed to protect us," said Minh Pham, a parent whose child attended the school, but "they did not do the work they were supposed to do. They stood there and watched and laughed."

Demonaco said fire crews were on the scene of the Sept. 22 fire within three minutes, which is consistent with normal response time. He said the fire moved very quickly, and at one point endangered the lives of firefighters, three of whom were injured.

"I did not see anything myself that would lead me to think that there were any inappropriate actions," Demonaco said. "It is real easy to be a Monday-morning quarterback."

"This is rare," Demonaco said of the allegations. "There are allegations or complaints that come forth in the department but generally, you don't see anyone accusing the Fire Department of standing around and watching a fire burn on purpose. That's almost unheard of."

Demonaco said all audio tapes relating to the fire are being reviewed, and that the results of a "thorough investigation" may be available as soon as Friday.

Fire Capt. Craig Campbell, a member of the firefighters' association, who was among the 40 firefighters at the fire, said that he is confident that the investigation will show that firefighters performed appropriately.

"I think what you are seeing is a group (of people) who are very upset about the loss of their business," Campbell said. "We are used to being called out to emergencies and disasters, but we are not used to having people blame us for an emergency."

The allegations came during the same meeting at which the council reaffirmed its decision to lay off five firefighters and put one fire truck out of service--a decision that led members of the firefighters' association and their supporters to launch a recall drive against Mayor Charles V. Smith and three members of the City Council.

Smith said Wednesday that despite his differences with the association, he continues to have faith in their performance.

"The council has never, ever questioned the capabilities of our firefighters or our paramedics," Smith said. "From a professional standpoint, we feel we have some of the best in the county."

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