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L.A. Controller Urges Switch to Civilian Fire Dispatchers

The change could save up to $4 million, but officials say trained firefighters are needed.

April 25, 2006|Lisa Richardson | Times Staff Writer

Hiring civilians to replace most firefighters at the Los Angeles Fire Department's dispatch center would save $2 million to $4 million a year, according to an audit released by City Controller Laura Chick.

Currently, the department's 75 dispatchers are required to have four years of experience as firefighters or paramedics. Chick recommends redeploying 62 of them to the field. Her audit also recommends redeploying 18 additional firefighters who are assigned to special duty.

The savings would be a fraction of the department's overall budget -- this year's was nearly $477 million -- but opposition from the department is enormous.

Staffing of the dispatch center is a hot-button issue that roiled the department 11 years ago when a consultant similarly found that hiring civilian dispatchers would save $4.1 million a year. The Fire Department then hired its own consultant, who said the savings would be dramatically lower and not worth the potential degradation of services and cost of training civilian replacements.

Most of the savings would come from lower salaries and fewer benefits. Under Chick's recommendation, some sworn firefighters would serve as supervisors.

In a news conference Monday, Chick said auditors examined eight large fire departments, including Atlanta, Chicago, Houston and Orange County, all of which have civilian dispatchers led by sworn or civilian commanders. Los Angeles should learn from their example, she said.

Chick said many concerns raised by the department's consultant who had advised against switching to civilians have been remedied.

"Some of the arguments coming forward now are the same arguments that came forward before, but we've got new answers," she said.

For example, upgrades to software have improved the reliability of the computer-aided system and reduced the types of system failures that require specialized firefighter skills.

As for training civilians, the Los Angeles Police Department, which uses civilian dispatchers, already has a comprehensive program that could be built upon for fire and medical emergency dispatchers, the audit recommends.

"As city controller, I'm not interested in naysayers.... I'm interested in hearing more from the union and the department as to how this can be done," Chick said.

That is unlikely to happen.

Department officials maintain that trained firefighters provide the most knowledgeable service to the public and to firefighters at the scene of an emergency.

Even the word "dispatcher," said Battalion Chief Leonard Thompson, is a misnomer because it fails to convey the level of expertise needed to do the job well.

During major blazes, he said, dispatchers coordinate with other agencies, such as the Department of Transportation; they know when a paramedic ambulance is needed to stand by or when specialized equipment should be deployed, he said. As emergency medical technicians and paramedics, they also know how to instruct frantic callers on the basics of first aid, he added.

"If you're the incident commander, you don't have to start thinking about those things, because there's somebody who knows those resources are necessary and is going to get them out to you," he said. "I don't see how you get a civilian to that point."

Pat McOsker, president of the firefighters' union, United Firefighters of Los Angeles, agreed.

"These are firefighters and paramedics. They're not just following some recipe card on what to say next," he said. "They're giving expert, field-seasoned advice on how to perform" basic cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Some aspects of the job cannot be quantified, McOsker said. They include a dedication to duty that comes with the training to be a firefighter as well as a split-second understanding of the command process. In an emergency, dispatchers are part of a seamless chain of authority that starts with the battalion chief, he said.

"We are an emergency service, and when they're given a command and given orders, they have to follow them with the same instant order-following we maintain out in the field," McOsker said.

Having trained firefighters work as dispatchers also gives the department the flexibility to find jobs for injured or pregnant firefighters who are not ready to be in the field.

Chick countered that the department could find other positions for them to fill.

She said she expects a reluctance to change but believes the change she has called for would benefit the public.

The LAPD receives all 911 calls first and transfers fire and medical emergency calls to sworn firefighters who then dispatch calls from the Emergency Operations Center under City Hall East. A new 120,000-square-foot facility under construction in Little Tokyo will handle the Fire Department's emergency calls beginning in 2009.

During fiscal 2004, the department dispatched firefighters to nearly 350,000 emergency calls: 40,500 to reported fires, 20,000 to rescue calls, 3,700 to hazardous materials calls and about 285,000 to emergency medical calls, according to the audit.

Chick launched the audit shortly after she released a January audit of the Fire Department that found harassment, hazing and discrimination toward female and minority firefighters.

The Fire Commission is scheduled to submit a list of recommendations for overhauling the department to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa today.

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