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L.A. fire officials unsure if budget cuts complicated response to drowning child in Bel Air

August 31, 2009 |  5:05 pm

A 3-year-old boy died in a swimming pool accident last week in Bel Air on a day when one of the neighborhood’s fire engines had been shut down because of budget cuts, according to interviews and records obtained by The Times.

The remaining two units at the neighborhood firehouse had been sent to another emergency just 94 seconds before the agency’s dispatch center sounded the alarm for the swimming pool call, Los Angeles Fire Department dispatch records show.

The next-closest rescuers took more than 10 minutes to arrive after the 911 call was made as family members struggled to save the child, who had drowned in the pool.

In such life-and-death situations, experts noted, minutes and even seconds can make a difference.

"That little guy deserved the benefit of the doubt....He didn’t get it," said paramedic Bill Ramsey, who served on the department for 34 years before retiring earlier this month. "This just breaks my heart."

Battalion Chief Ronnie Villanueva said the engine company that was shut down is one-tenth to three-tenths of a mile closer to the house than the two units that responded to the drowning.

"There’s no way to tell if it would have made a difference," he said.

Villanueva said the cutbacks, which have required fire officials to shutter 15 fire engines and nine ambulances at different stations daily, are necessary to help close a $56.5-million shortfall in the department’s budget.

"It’s not something we want to do. It’s something we have to do," Villanueva said. The department suspended the cutbacks for at least one day on Monday because of the wildfires raging in Angeles National Forest.

The chain of events in the drowning incident began last Wednesday afternoon.

An ambulance with two paramedics and a so-called light force -- six firefighters on a truck company and engine company -- were at Station 37 on Veteran Avenue near UCLA. The station is designated the firehouse "first in" for the Bel Air neighborhood where the child drowned.

At 2:53 p.m., the Los Angeles Police Department dispatch center, which takes all 911 calls, received a report of a person having difficulty breathing, according to the records and sources. The call was transferred to Fire Department dispatchers.

Less than two minutes later, the alarm sounded at Station 37 for the emergency on Midvale Avenue, which called for two units. The ambulance and light force arrived at that scene about two minutes later, the records show.

Meanwhile, the drowning call had been picked up by police dispatchers at 2:55 p.m. About a minute later, the alarm sounded for the drowning call at Station 71 on Beverly Glen Drive, which had the next-closest available units. A paramedic ambulance and engine company responded, according to records.

As the rescue units raced to the house, dispatchers were giving instructions over the telephone to family members as they tried to resuscitate the boy, according to the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

The rescuers normally would have been supervised by a paramedic captain about 3 miles away, at Station 19 on Sunset Boulevard. These captains, all veteran paramedics, serve as an extra set of eyes in fast-breaking emergencies and are liaisons with distraught family members and emergency room personnel.

But Station 19’s captain has been cut from the department’s budget. The next closest paramedic supervisor was assigned to Fire Station 68 at Washington Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, the records show. He was dispatched to head for the drowning scene at the same time as Station 71.

But he had to drive eight to 11 miles, depending on the route, in afternoon traffic through the Westside.

As the paramedic captain drove west, rescuers did a "swoop and scoop" and took the child to the hospital, Villanueva said.

The captain ended up meeting the rescuers at UCLA Medical Center, the sources said. The boy had been pronounced dead.

-- Robert J. Lopez

Photo: Los Angeles Times

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