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LAFD's smoke and mirrors

Commissioners need to ask tough questions about how response times were calculated and how to improve the Fire Department

March 21, 2012|STEVE LOPEZ
  • LAFD Chief Brian Cummings talks to city commisioners addressing a controversy over response time statistics.
LAFD Chief Brian Cummings talks to city commisioners addressing a controversy… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

Maybe I was beginning to suffer from smoke inhalation. All I know is that I started feeling faint at Tuesday's meeting of the Los Angeles Fire Commission right around the time LAFD Fire Chief Brian Cummings attempted, yet again, to explain mysterious discrepancies regarding emergency response times.

You'd have been dizzy too, hearing about metrics, deployment models, projections and changing formulas.

I knew 20 minutes into the meeting that if I fainted and fell over backward, and someone called 911, no one in the room could say for sure how long the projected or actual response might take or what formula would be used to compute it.

I did learn at the meeting that when you call 911 for a fire or medical emergency, the call goes to the LAPD first. Typically, said an assistant chief, it might take 30 seconds for the call to get bounced over to the Fire Department (the LAPD tells me this can take a full 60 seconds). And it can take an additional 90 seconds for the fire dispatchers to determine exactly what's going on and send the call to the right fire station.

After that, it can take 60 more seconds for a unit to roll.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, March 22, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
LAFD response times: In the March 21 Section A, a column about Los Angeles Fire Department response times misspelled the last name of the president of the city Fire Commission. She is Genethia Hudley-Hayes, not Hudson-Hayes.

So we're already up to as much as 31/2 minutes from the time of the call until the time they start their engines, and even longer if the call is made on a cellphone. And the whole point of discussing response times is that if you're not breathing, you could be brain-dead in four to six minutes.

As The Times has reported, LAFD officials have admitted they used a six-minute response standard in calculating how well they performed, even as city officials were led to believe a five-minute standard was being used.

It's still not clear to me why that happened. But it is clear that budget cuts were made on the basis of the brighter outlook, and City Council members are demanding an investigation and an explanation.

And then Tuesday, Cummings served up an explanation I hadn't heard yet. He said the department was using projected data instead of real data.

Are you still with me?

If so, then we're both lost.

Cummings said a computer model had projected that the department responded to medical emergencies within five minutes 79% of the time in 2008, and that after budget cuts, the figure would drop to 77%.

But those, he said, were just projections.

In fact, the department responded within five minutes only 64% of the time a few years ago, and now the number is around 60%, which, if it's true, falls about 30% short of the standard many departments shoot for.

"The story changes every time he opens his mouth," said Pat McOsker, president of the firefighters union.

Genethia Hudson-Hayes, president of the Fire Commission, didn't seem too upset about having been misled by Cummings and his crazy algebra, but then, it wasn't even clear that she felt misled. She said the slower responses are obviously related to manpower and resource cuts.

"The bottom line is, we're thin. And we need more money," she said.

Really?

I thought one of the other commissioners might step up to the plate, but instead Commissioner Andrew Friedman made a rambling speech that touched on his 15 grandchildren, cookies, his native Hungary, and his steadfast belief that Los Angeles is the next best thing to heaven.

What we need is commissioners who don't give the chief a pass, acting more like lap dogs than watchdogs. It seemed all the commission wanted to do was state for the record that it didn't intentionally mislead the City Council. It didn't seem to have any inclination to call Cummings on the carpet, which is what I would have done. Not just for the way he tells time, but for the deployment plan he's put in place.

Not that this is an easy job. Los Angeles poses many challenges for a Fire Department, given the hundreds of square miles, the winds, the density, the high-rises, the brush, the traffic, the medically uninsured who wait until it's bad and then dial 911.

You can't do it on the cheap, and in fact, mayoral candidate Austin Beutner is passing around a Fire Department report from last November that suggests response times were horrible in some neighborhoods last year after new budget cuts were implemented.

Pat Pope of the Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council isn't surprised. He said he didn't like what he heard last spring when Cummings visited the neighborhood to explain how the department would try to keep them covered despite cutting back on equipment and staffing.

"I don't think he said this was good, he just said this was better than rolling brownouts," said Pope, referring to the previous budget-cutting model.

But Pope, a retired telephone company employee, said he believes public safety is at greater risk in Porter Ranch in the last few months with the loss of a hook and ladder truck, an ambulance and an engine company.

"There are no paramedics north of the 118 now between the 405 and the city limits to the west," he said.

Of course more money would help, but while the Fire Commission waits for millions to fall from the sky, we need to look at more than response times.

Is better technology available for both dispatch and fleet deployment?

Can we get residents to stop bothering the Fire Department with stubbed toes, burnt toast and backyard snakes?

And more than 80% of all calls are for medical problems, yet the department is still built to fight fires. That means that lumbering, gas-guzzling big rigs with large crews often go racing through the city as the first responders. Are there ways to retool?

First and foremost, though, where's Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and can he please explain what his fire chief is talking about?

--

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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