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Union, council members fear Fire Department cutbacks

Fire chief says the mayor's plan to eliminate 18 fire companies and four ambulances is better than intermittent closures imposed in 2009. 'Lives will be lost,' a union official says.

April 28, 2011|By Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times
  • Firefighter Ted Nonini, left, speaks with City Councilman Tom LaBonge, who voiced concern over proposed cutbacks to the Fire Department.
Firefighter Ted Nonini, left, speaks with City Councilman Tom LaBonge,… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

A proposal to cut 18 fire companies and four ambulances from the Los Angeles Fire Department is generating an outcry from some members of the City Council and leaders of the firefighters union.

The proposed cuts, which are part of the $6.9-billion budget unveiled last week by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, call for firetrucks or ambulances at about one-fourth of the city's 106 fire stations to be put out of service permanently. A small number of stations would gain services.

According to Los Angeles Fire Chief Millage Peaks, the redeployment plan would save the city more than $53 million in the next fiscal year and nearly $200 million over three years.

It would also put an end to the unpopular service "brownouts" the department instituted after the budget reductions in 2009.

Every day, the Fire Department closes 22 fire companies and six ambulance teams, Peaks said. The firefighters from the closed companies fill in for staff at other companies who are sick or on vacation.

The brownouts save the city about $150,000 each day, but fire officials complain that they disrupt staffing.

Peaks, who endorses the mayor's proposal, said he believes some permanent closures are a better alternative. Firefighters have vowed to fight the closures.

"We want the brownouts to stop, but you don't end them by making them permanent," said Pat McOsker, the president of the United Firefighters of Los Angeles City.

McOsker said the closures would effect the department's response time — a charge Peaks denies — and would put firefighters and the public at risk.

"Lives will be lost because of it," the union leader said.

At a news conference Wednesday, City Council members Janice Hahn, Jose Huizar and Tom LaBonge said they were concerned about the proposed cuts.

Speaking in front of a crowd of several dozen firefighters shortly before the council's Budget and Finance Committee took up the mayor's budget, Hahn said she was particularly worried about a fire station in Wilmington.

Under the proposed reductions, Fire Station 38 would lose a hook and ladder truck and a pumper truck. The department determined those and other reductions with the help of a computer program that analyzed which companies were most in demand.

Hahn said that method failed to consider a worst-case scenario.

"It's really not about how many calls they've had before," said Hahn, noting that Wilmington is vulnerable because it is home to oil refineries and is near the Port of Los Angeles. "It's about what could happen."

Peaks said he expects the department to lose 318 firefighters to retirement over the next three years, reducing the total to about 3,250. The Fire Department has not hired firefighters in three years.

Peaks said he thinks firefighters are frustrated because the Los Angeles Police Department has continued to hire officers — with the exception of an effective four-month hiring freeze approved by the council last month.

"I think they feel like second-class citizens," he said.

Peaks said that if he had his way, the department would not have to shrink.

"I would love to see all of those resources come back," said Peaks, who noted that the department responds to more than 1,000 fire and medical emergencies each day. "But the reality is there's no more money."

kate.linthicum@latimes.com

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