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Firehouses feel pinch of cuts in L.A. budget

Firefighters at a West L.A. station, unable to replace an air compressor, must use their breathing tanks to inflate firetruck tires. But it's not easy riding to the station's rescue.

April 12, 2011|Steve Lopez
  • Westside Neighborhood Council members Lisa Morocco, left, and Terri Tippit wanted to do a good deed and buy Fire Station 92 a new air compressor to replace an old portable device.
Westside Neighborhood Council members Lisa Morocco, left, and Terri Tippit… (Barbara Davidson, Los Angeles…)

My friend Lisa Morocco of the Westside Neighborhood Council knows first-hand that in this era of tight budgets, lots of people are feeling the pinch.

She and the all-volunteer members of her council have tried their best to help out, even as the distress calls outrun the supply of available cash. The council has bought books for libraries, crayons for schools and even handcuffs for police. I kid you not.

But Morocco thought a firefighter at Station 92, on Pico Boulevard near Overland Avenue, was joking when he gave her this nugget:

The station's old, portable air-compressor system is useless for inflating firetruck tires, and fixing it or getting approval for a new one could take half a century. So when firefighters don't have time to drive all the way downtown to the Los Angeles Fire Department's maintenance yard, they fill tires with the air from breathing tanks they wear into smoky buildings.

"I thought [he] was kidding," Morocco said.

He wasn't, and 92 isn't the only station where a crew has jury-rigged a way to use air canisters as tire pumps. Station 92 Capt. Craig Nielsen told me that newer stations have built-in compressors, but older houses tend to use old portables, and his has been failing for about three years.

Even if it were fixed, Nielsen said, "it's inadequate" for filling tires that need 120 pounds of pressure and have to be tested every single day. Compressors are also needed for pneumatic tools that firefighters use to keep their equipment serviced.

Morocco and her friends on the Westside council immediately offered to buy a new compressor — Home Depot has one for $313 — pending the required approval from City Hall.

Pop quiz:

How many readers think the purchase went smoothly, with no bureaucratic hassles, and everything is now fine?

And how many of you knew two minutes ago that this would not end well?

"We have to use this crazy form called a 'demand warrant' along with an invoice and W-9 and other info," said Morocco, the council's treasurer.

Terri Tippit, chairwoman of the Westside council, described the Catch-22 in which councils are expected to buy the product and then file for reimbursement, which could take as long as six months and might be denied in the end. Tippit took umbrage when she wanted to replace run-down exercise equipment for Station 92 and the city asked why. She wrote back:

"Fit fire fighters fighting fires faster."

Christopher Koontz, planning deputy for L.A. City Councilman Paul Koretz, said these "demand warrants" go through the city Department of Neighborhood Empowerment. It's important to make sure purchases are legit, and there has been some abuse. But empowerment staff has been decimated, and cutting checks takes forever, as it does in other city departments.

"We've been six months behind from the beginning of time," Koontz said.

Adding to the absurdity is the fact that neighborhood councils get their money — $45,000 a year following a budget reduction, with another cut rumored to be on the way — from the city. Then the councils have to ask the city for permission to spend it.

So the city "underfunds what should have been funded" in the first place, Koontz said, then takes months deciding whether to let the neighborhood councils do what they were established to do. And if "demand warrants" are approved, what does the city do?

It takes money back from the neighborhood councils and cuts a check to pay for the requested goods.

Hello?

Can we please grab a stranger off the street and ask him to design a better system, or should we assign this to a kindergarten class somewhere?

If you're reading, Mayor Villaraigosa, can you please get this screwed-up bureaucracy streamlined by lunchtime today? If not, can you free up $300 and deliver an air compressor to Station 92? There's a chance someone would take your picture.

The Times, however, was not allowed to photograph Station 92 firefighters using breathing canisters to fill truck tires, which they do once a month or so, according to Capt. Nielsen. But wouldn't the publicity illustrate the effects of budget cuts and give a pat on the back to fully engaged citizens who are trying to improve public safety for the greater good?

Certainly, but according to Fire Department brass — namely Battalion Chief Ronnie Villanueva — Station 92 hadn't gone through the right chain-of-command channels regarding either the air compressor or contact with the media.

What would that have taken, two months?

The air compressor isn't a critical piece of equipment, but it's emblematic of the effect of cuts both big and small. In a money-saving move, the Fire Department uses "rolling brownouts", putting trucks and crews out of service on a rotating basis. Mike Eveloff, an alternate board member of the Westside council, jokes that at any given hour in the same fire district, you don't want to be the second person to have a heart attack.

The calendar on the wall at Station 92 shows that for the next 12 days, one truck crew will be idle, and staffing will sometimes be at half the full force of 12. Last weekend, members of 92 were covering for a station in Woodland Hills and stopped into a Home Depot to investigate whether they could speed up the paperwork required by the city for the purchase of the air compressor.

Good luck with that. Meanwhile, Capt. Nielsen is planning a pancake breakfast to say thanks to neighbors who keep trying to help out despite ample evidence that no good deed goes unpunished.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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