The Los Angeles Fire Department has begun shutting down rescue units and eliminating paramedic field supervisors as part a cost-cutting plan that officials say will increase response times during life-threatening emergencies.
The plan goes into full effect early Thursday, with 15 fire trucks and six ambulances being pulled out of service daily on a rotating basis citywide. Firefighters assigned to those units will be used to plug staff vacancies, which for years have been filled by calling other employees in for overtime.
As part of the effort to close a $56.5-million budget shortfall, three additional ambulances in Sylmar, Hollywood and East Hollywood were closed indefinitely on Sunday. Those ambulances, staffed by firefighters for 12-hour periods, eased the burden on busy paramedic ambulances by responding to lower-level emergencies.
Also eliminated indefinitely were three positions for captains who supervise paramedics in the field and serve as emergency-room liaisons. Many contend that cut is dangerous.
"You're going to compromise care for a lot of people and you're potentially going to kill some people," said Bill Ramsey, a 30-year department paramedic.
Melanie Ridgley, a pre-hospital care coordinator at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center, said the paramedic captains provide an extra set of eyes during fast-breaking emergencies and are crucial to ensuring quality patient care.
"This is awful," said Ridgley, who works with the supervisors at Providence's emergency room in the San Fernando Valley. "They're really the glue that holds it all together."
Fire Chief Douglas Barry said last month that the cutbacks would create longer response times for both medical emergency and fire calls, but he declined to speculate if that could lead to an increase in deaths.
"As you know, with emergency medical calls as well as fire calls, sometimes minutes, even seconds, can make the difference on success," Barry said.
The Fire Department must cut another $13 million to cover its budget shortfall. City Councilman Bernard C. Parks, chairman of the budget and finance committee, said the city's financial situation is so dire that there's no guarantee L.A. will have $13 million in reserves to avoid the cuts.
Parks, however, dismissed speculation about people dying as "scare tactics."
"People die every day, even when they are fully deployed," Parks said. "We need to put that into context, and not use that as a scare tactic. We feel comfortable that the fire chief and his staff have proposed what we think is a reasonable plan.
"The Fire Department," the councilman said, "is at its highest level of deployment that it has ever been in its history."