South LA fire emptied 14 LAFD stations of trucks available for emergencies

Los Angeles fire officials announced today that the department's extensive response to a dangerous South Los Angeles blaze left 14 fire stations across the city with no fire trucks immediately available to respond to emergencies.

"We probably got lucky that nobody burned to death during that time,'' union leader Pat McOsker, president of United Firefighters of Los Angeles City, said.

Battalion Chief Ronnie Villanueva, a spokesman for the Fire Department, confirmed that several fire stations were empty of fire trucks for a brief period late Tuesday or early Wednesday, because those resources were deployed to a blaze at a metal recycling business at 761 E. Slauson Ave.

In all, 220 firefighters were sent to deal with the inferno, which sparked several explosions and caused about $5 million worth of damage. A few firefighters sustained minor injuries.

Villanueva could not confirm which fire stations were left without fire trucks and for how long, but said "it couldn't have been very long.''

He also said all the fire stations still had ambulances to respond to medical emergencies.

The Los Angeles Fire Department has been under a "Modified Coverage Plan'' since August of last year, operating with 15 fewer fire trucks and nine fewer ambulances to avoid paying overtime.

Villanueva said whenever department resources are spread too thin, it goes into "degraded mode.''

"This means we start to limit our resources on initial response, so where you would normally get, let's say three companies, you would only get two companies,'' he said. "We see what's going on and we start to split companies and we start to move companies into those areas.''

Asked how depleted staffing has affected public safety, Villanueva said, "I hope it doesn't. That's why we constantly move companies around. What will happen is you may have an increase in response time, but it would be minimal.''

He noted response time has "pretty much stayed about the same'' -- even with the Modified Coverage Plan. "We always do the best we can for the public.''

But Villanueva conceded the LAFD goes into that so-called degraded mode "frequently,'' particularly when there is a brush fire.

In those cases, he said, dispatchers will contact neighboring fire departments -- such as the county, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills or Pasadena -- and ask them to pitch in.

Villanueva stressed that the LAFD has remained capable of dealing with emergencies even with limited resources.

He pointed out the department responded to more than 200 other calls for help across the city between 11:43 p.m. Tuesday, when the fire at the metal recycling plant began, to about 6 a.m., when it was contained.

McOsker argues that continuing the Modified Coverage Plan puts lives at risk, and he's urging the city to end it.

Last week, he made a presentation before the city's labor negotiators about other ways to reduce operational costs at the LAFD and raise revenue.

"We're up in negotiations again and we're trying to give (the city) more savings and more sacrifices than even last year,'' McOsker said. "We've added it all up and shown them how they can end the Modified Coverage Plan -- mostly on our backs -- and it's just sitting their lap now, waiting for them to make a decision and do the right thing.''

Details about negotiations are kept confidential, so McOsker's financial claims could not be immediately confirmed.