Facing the worst budget deficit in decades, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has proposed deep cuts to the city’s fire department.
His plan would permanently close nearly 30 fire trucks and paramedic units, and would shrink the department by more than 300 firefighters.
Fire officials who designed the plan promise that it would maintain public safety. Critics predict that it’ll lead to unnecessary deaths.
Fire Captain Jaime Moore said department personnel analyzed more than a million calls for help to craft a plan that would safely scale back the department. “We had to take a very good look at the way we operated," Moore said.
He said while Chief Milage Peaks would prefer to maintain the size of the department, he and other fire leaders found they could get away with some downsizing. "We have some areas where we have task forces where a single engine could handle the number of fire calls they’re getting.”
L.A. City Councilman Grieg Smith, who sits on the budget committee, said the department’s needed to reorganize for some time. He said it’s used the same deployment system for 50 years. “It has been a system that was archaic because no one asked it to change," Smith said. "Budget constraints have caused us to look at things more efficiently.”
Under the plan, the fire department would eliminate 318 of about 3,580 firefighter positions. Some of them are already vacant.
The department also would close 18 engines, seven hook-and-ladder trucks and four ambulances. All this would save the city $190 million over three years.
The plan wouldn't affect operations at most of the department’s 106 fire stations, but firehouses from the harbor area to South L.A. to the San Fernando Valley would lose trucks.
Two stations in Porter Ranch would lose two trucks and an ambulance. That worries Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council President Mel Mitchell, who knows firsthand about fires.
“We live right off of Aliso Canyon and the Sesnon Fire just swept through there, and the fire department came through and saved our homes," Mitchell said.
He said he knows the first fire truck would probably arrive quickly the next time he needs help, but he wonders whether backup would.
“The closest service would come from Chatsworth and that’s an additional 10 minutes.”
Councilman Smith conceded there may be some delay in sending backup fire trucks.
"We may not have as many resources there, initially, in a few cases, but in the overwhelming majority of this city, they are better off.”
Better off, he said, because a few high volume stations will end up with an additional fire truck or paramedic under the plan. Smith notes 80 percent of calls are for medical help, not fires.
Captain Moore said delays already are happening. The department’s cut service on a rotating basis for a year-and-a-half.
“There hasn’t been a major, significant increase in response times due to the modified coverage plan," Moore said. "But there has been an effect on response times.”
He said that while the new plan ends rotating brownouts and improves response times in some cases, they’ll still be slower by a few seconds in others.
"Those delayed responses will lead to unnecessary deaths," firefighters union president Pat McOsker said.
“They’re going to park empty ambulances in fire houses that are not staffed," he said. "They call them 'ready reserve' but they’re not ready for anything.”
L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa accused McOsker of using scare tactics when he predicts that the plan would threaten public safety.
“It’s just not true," Villaraigosa said. "In fact if we didn’t approve that plan, we’d have to cut even deeper.”
That’s what Mel Mitchell of Porter Ranch wants the mayor to do – cut elsewhere. Asked where, he said that’s up to elected leaders.
“I’m not the mayor. I’m not the City Council. I know what my priorities are, and they are here in Porter Ranch.”
For Mitchell, the plan to downsize the fire department drives home a point he heard when he and his wife took the city’s disaster training course.
“One message that was consistently shared with us is that if we have a major earthquake or a major disaster, don’t count on the firefighters or the police to be there," he said. "You’ve got to learn to take care of yourself.”
That may be truer than ever, if the mayor’s plan to shrink the fire department wins City Council approval.
While some councilmembers have raised concerns, none have offered alternative cuts to help remedy a city budget deep in the red.