(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)
Los Angeles Fire Chief Brian Cummings vowed Thursday to press ahead with a controversial plan to reassign dozens of city firefighters from fire engines to ambulance duty, despite an outcry from groups representing city firefighters and the department's top commanders.
The plan would add 11 new ambulances to the LAFD’s fleet by removing one member per shift from 22 firetrucks across the city. The chief said the change is necessary to reshape the department to fulfill its primary task: providing emergency medical care.
Medical calls account for more than 80% of 911 responses, according to department officials and an independent data analysis by The Times. And the chief says that lopsided figure is growing rapidly. In the first two months of this year, medical calls increased 6.2%, compared with the same period last year, Cummings said in a written report.
Cummings' plan drew intense criticism from the firefighters' union and the association of chief officers at a special Fire Commission meeting Thursday on the redeployment. Labor leaders said the chief had failed to convince his rank-and-file force that his plan will work and not compromise the safety of firefighters battling fires.
“If you remove one firefighter, it's like asking the Dodgers to play without a center fielder,” said Andy Fox, president the LAFD Chief Officers Assn. “Yes, they can play the game. Over time, it would prove to be a very bad idea.”
The plan would affect about 60 firefighters assigned to so-called light forces, the combination of a ladder truck and fire engine that jointly responds to emergency incidents. Each light force is currently staffed by six firefighters who perform specialized roles during structure fires and complex rescues, such as removing victims trapped in car wreckage.
The chief's redeployment would leave many of the city's light forces with five firefighters, but allow the addition of 11 ambulances, LAFD officials said.
The ambulances would mainly respond to less serious emergencies that do not require a firetruck or more highly trained paramedic. Every LAFD firefighter is an emergency medical technician with some lifesaving skills.
Cummings said the change will take effect May 5 and increase the department’s class of non-paramedic ambulances by about one-third, to 45. That will help free up about 90 overtaxed paramedic units to respond to the most life-threatening calls, officials said.
The shift also aims to reduce the responses by heavy firetrucks to less serious medical calls.
“To send an aerial ladder truck, or let alone lights and sirens, to someone with abdominal pains is dangerous and foolish,” said Marc Eckstein, the LAFD medical director.
Opponents of the plan agree more ambulances are needed, but say the chief’s plan was hastily drafted and thinly researched.
The department's data analysis has been under increased scrutiny since early last year, when fire officials admitted to publishing response times that made it appear rescuers arrived at emergencies faster than they actually did.
A task force of experts overseen by Fire Commissioner Alan Skobin found that fire officials responsible for crunching the numbers were poorly qualified and that previous departmental data analysis “should not be relied upon.”
A series of subsequent Times investigations found delays in processing 911 calls and summoning the nearest medical rescuers from other jurisdictions, as well as wide gaps in response times in different parts of the city.
At Thursday’s meeting, the chief officers association unsuccessfully urged the Fire Commission to block the change until Cummings prepares a more thorough analysis.
More details will be presented at a May 21 commission meeting, after the plan is in effect, Cummings said.
Given current budget constraints on his department, the chief said he’s doing the best that he can.
"After asking for money and not receiving it, I am moving forward.” he said. “What we need is additional ambulances."
Document: Draft LAFD ambulance plan
Full coverage: Life on the line, 911 breakdowns at LAFD
Map: How fast is LAFD where you live?