Lies and Cover-up Only Part of LA’s Firegate Scandal

RETHINKING LA - LA’s Fire Department has been turned upside down and placed in the hot seat, not for the actions of its rank and file, but for the creative accounting habits of its leadership. Turns out that the LAFD has been reporting its response rates more favorably than appropriate, counting anything up to six minutes as five minutes.

This number is important to the LAFD because the Federal guidelines for first responders call for arrival on the scene in under five minutes 90% of the time. The LAFD claimed to hit five minutes 86% of the time in 2008 but then revealed that the actual number was closer to 64% with the most recent performance dropping to 59%.

City Hall is currently engaged in the obligatory wailing and gnashing of teeth, expressing shock that a city department is not only under performing, but also covering its tracks. As the LAFD is taken to task, it’s worth noting that there are larger issues.

1) This wasn’t news because of the revelation, it was news because Mayoral Candidate Austin Beutner was able to use his role as mayoral candidate to position it in the national limelight.

Earlier in the week, on March 1, City Controller Candidate Cary Brazeman released the results of his audit of the LAFD, contradicting the performance claim for 2008 and determining that the LAFD hit five minutes 61.8% of the time. Brazeman’s audit failed to stir a response within City Hall.

Then on March 7, Beutner’s article on the  same topic appeared in the Huffington Post and Beutner claimed the bully pulpit, reframing the issue and declaring “In 2011, after the cuts and Mr. Garcetti’s promises, the LAFD arrived at a medical emergency within five minutes only 59% of the time.”

Shortly thereafter, the LA Times jumped into the fray and initiated a thorough audit, setting in motion a series of articles that complemented the work of Brazeman and Beutner, eventually prompting City Hall to respond.

The bottom line? City Hall is even worse at responding to a crisis than the LAFD, the only difference is that City Hall will ignore the alarm bell until forced to respond.

2) This news isn’t new, in fact the issue of LAFD response times has been an issue for so long that it simply faded into the background. The Brazeman audit and the Beutner article simply move it to the foreground, again confirming the anecdotal complaints of residents.

Several years ago, as the City of LA went to work implementing the Fire Facilities Bond Program, residents of the Hollywood Hills were dismissed as NIMBYs for protesting some of the proposed locations for FS 82, a regional training station that required two acres of land.

Councilmembers Eric Garcetti and Tom LaBonge settled the debate by rejecting the centrally located property favored by residents and downgrading the station to a half-acre lot next to the freeway. The howling continues to this day.

Then, as now, concerns are dismissed with explanations that are a literal insult to the intelligence of the residents.

When addressing missed calls and delayed responses, Fire Chief Cummings said “The system is working 99% of the time.” As for the March 7 system failure, “just two calls out of 1,000 were missed and no one died in either of those cases.”

As the proverbial smoke clears, it is evident that the City of LA is having a hard time determining what counts and counting what matters. The call to action goes beyond simply charting response times and speaks to the need for systemic oversight and accountability.

3) This news isn’t about the LAFD, it’s about the City of LA and its charming tradition of allowing city departments to conduct their business as if they are small fiefdoms, each with their unique accounting systems, communications systems, and management styles, insulated in silos of legal oversight that is far from consistent.

LA’s City Council has four members out of fifteen that have worn the LAPD uniform and they surely know the issues that LA experiences with 911 service, dispatch overlaps and gaps, stat reporting, and accountability. If they don’t, then we are in even bigger trouble.

Issues over the LAFD data capture simply echoes the controversy over LAPD data capture, demonstrating LA’s knack for kicking the can down the road rather than grappling with issues and resolving them systemically.

Meanwhile, LA’s City Attorney stands by with legal advice that varies from department to department, bandied about as if it were a shield, instead of a standard for performance.

Time after time, from the LADOT to the LAPD to the LAFD, the City Attorney is positioned as the party directing departmental behavior instead of the party simply offering legal advice to departmental managers.

The City of LA needs legal accountability, not simply loss prevention advice, and the people of Los Angeles have the right to expect that the City Departments are operating in the best interests of the public, not just minimalizing liability and then hiding behind the City Attorney as if he has the authority to direct city departments.

The brouhaha over the LA Fire Department’s creative accounting is simply smoke from a larger smoldering fire, one that reaches permeates City Hall.

Brazeman and Beutner have both gone on to propose some inspired solutions to this situation. The City Attorney went the other direction and apparently instructed the LAFD to circle the fire trucks, an instruction that was countermanded by Mayor Villaraigosa. [story]

Through it all, it is acutely apparent, the people of LA need an Ombudsman, somebody who will represent them by taking complaints about the delivery of city services seriously and not waiting to investigate until the issue goes national.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: [email protected] You can also find him on Twitter and on Facebook.)

Tags: Stephen Box, Firegate, LAFD, LA Fire Department, Cary Brazeman, Austin Beutner, Mayor Villaraigosa, City Council, City Attorney, City Hall

Vol 10 Issue 25
Pub: Mar 27, 2012