Playing with fire
by Jim Newton
In recent years, as the city of Los Angeles has spiraled into deeper and deeper financial trouble, leaders have argued that they are cutting back nonessential city services to preserve the government’s most basic mission: protecting its residents. What that has meant, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and City Council members have insisted, is jettisoning some government functions and transferring workers so that police and fire can be kept whole.
But as the city leadership has been pressed into difficult choices, one consequence is that the Los Angeles Fire Department has been quietly whittled away. It is still authorized for 3,588 sworn firefighters, but that’s an illusory number. Roughly 400 of those positions are vacant, as are about 40 of the LAFD’s 344 civilian jobs (down from 438 civilian jobs in 2008). The department’s budget has been shaved by more than 12% in the last several years, and the number of firefighters on duty at any given time has fallen from 1,073 in 2008 to 931 last year.
It’s not about to get any better. The Los Angeles Police Department’s website proclaims that the “LAPD is Hiring! Starting at $45,226.” Over at the Fire Department’s recruitment site, the news is different: “Unfortunately, the city’s financial situation has resulted in a reduction in the firefighter hiring plan. Therefore, the firefighter job bulletin is closed, and no applications for this examination are being accepted until further notice.”
To compensate for dwindling resources, the department has been forced to adopt what it calls a “modified coverage plan,” a rolling system of “brownouts” — daily closures of fire facilities because the department is stretched so thin. One out of three Fire Department divisions is always closed, as are two of its 16 battalions; half a dozen ambulances are out of commission at all times. Firefighters rotate through the city to cover for unstaffed areas. The result: Firefighters are often working in communities they don’t know, confronting dangers they have not been trained to address.
“As a fire department, we’re at a tipping point,” said Battalion Chief Chris Kawai, who discussed the department’s faltering strength with me recently at the Battalion 5 headquarters in Hollywood. One of his colleagues was blunter: “We’re being gutted.”
Just hours after Kawai and I spoke, city and county firefighters responded to a house fire in the Hollywood Hills. As they battled that blaze, a ceiling collapsed. It came toppling down on Glenn Allen, who had served his city and department for 36 years. Allen was mortally wounded. On Feb. 18, he died.
Allen was not killed by budget cuts, but his death was a poignant reminder of the heroism demanded of those who risk their lives for men and women they have never met.
In 2008, Villaraigosa justifiably boasted of proposing modest increases to the Fire Department budget. But the following year, he cut the department budget by $56 million at the same time that he argued the “Fire Department is about where it should be.” He cut another $10 million in 2010 while describing police and fire as “our core functions” and stressing that “we’ve got to protect our core functions.”
Faced with staggering shortfalls, the mayor argues that he has had no option but to cut funding for public safety. “Seventy percent of the general fund is police and fire,” Deputy Mayor Matt Szabo said Monday. “We can’t possibly solve this without cuts there.” The LAPD, he added, took the largest cut of any city department (it’s by the far the biggest) when it gave up $100 million in overtime money.
There’s no question that the city is in a tight pinch, and the police and fire departments can’t be immune from belt-tightening. But uniformed firefighters provide precisely the kind of core service the city needs to preserve.
The Fire Department’s budget was $561 million in 2008; it was $495 million last year.
Heroic work by department leaders and rank-and-file firefighters have preserved response times, so the immediate impact of those cuts has been muted. But there have been real consequences. Training has been reduced by 80%; fire inspectors have been cut back — together, those will make it harder to fight future fires. And demand for the department’s services is certainly not diminishing: In 2008, the LAFD responded to 731,828 calls for help; last year, it rolled out to 795,693.
One of those rollouts occurred late last month, when Allen was among the firefighters who rushed to extinguish the blaze in the Hollywood Hills. Despite the budget cuts, the Fire Department was able to assemble a full cadre of firefighters that night. But they were cobbled together from various parts of the department, which makes it harder for them to work together effectively. And the command team that oversaw the effort, though by all accounts a capable one, did not come from Battalion 5, which normally would have handled it. Battalion 5 was browned out that day.
Eight days later, bagpipes and drums led a solemn procession from City Hall to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, marching past the trucks of fellow firefighters from throughout the state, their light bars activating as Allen’s casket slowly passed by.
Escorting Allen’s widow was Millage Peaks, chief of the Fire Department for the last 17 months. He and I had spoken before Allen’s death about the budget cuts he has been forced to manage in recent years. He’d been reluctant to say much, but did allow that he was worried.
As he presented Melanie Allen with her husband’s shield, I recalled what Peaks had told me when we talked. “It’s been 17 months of sleepless nights,” he said of his tenure and his fight to protect funding for his department. “I worry about the public. I worry about my firefighters. They’re working harder now than they’ve ever had to work.”