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LAFD 911 center concerns will be addressed, Villaraigosa says

FULL COVERAGE: 911 breakdowns at the LAFD

Concerns raised by a top commander about a major staffing change at the Los Angeles Fire Department's 911 call center need to be addressed before the change is approved, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said Tuesday.

The plan backed by the mayor and city leaders would shift dispatchers from a 24-hour schedule to an eight-hour workday, a move that would save about $3.2 million annually. But a report by the dispatch center commander warned that public safety would be compromised if the plan is adopted before the agency replaces an aging computer system that has crashed repeatedly.

"Before we move ahead, we'll have to make sure we do so answering the questions that have been raised," Villaraigosa told The Times after a closed-door meeting with city officials to discuss the proposal.

FULL COVERAGE: 911 breakdowns at the LAFD

The proposal could reduce the number of dispatch center call takers by as much as 20% to 40% depending on the shift, according to interviews and internal LAFD records.

Fire Chief Brian Cummings, who attended the meeting, declined to discuss specifics on the proposed staffing change, citing ongoing negotiations with the firefighters union. But he said any change would not compromise public safety.

"We're going to make sure we have as safe and effective dispatch system as we can," Cummings said.

PHOTOS: Inside the LAFD call center

Assistant Chief Daniel McCarthy, the call center commander, warned in a June report to the chief that making the staffing changes before new computer equipment is in place "would be a tragedy for those we are sworn to protect."

A series of computer system crashes this year forced dispatchers to manually track rescuers in the field using golf tees and pegboards. In March, The Times reported that breakdowns delayed responses in four emergencies, including a South Los Angeles structure fire in which two people died.

McCarthy also said the new plan would not provide enough dispatchers to deal with computer breakdowns or sudden spikes in calls during major emergencies.

Villaraigosa, who included $12 million for a new computer system in his budget for the current fiscal year, said he was recently briefed about McCarthy's report.

By next spring, fire officials have said, they are hoping to seek contractors to replace the 30-year-old computer system that powers one of the busiest 911 operations in the nation.

Fire officials have said they would like to make the staffing changes at the downtown dispatch center by the end of January.

Council President Herb Wesson, who was in the meeting Tuesday, indicated that nothing had been settled. "I think there's got to be a little more conversation," he said.

The proposed staffing overhaul is a response to a court ruling last year that made the city liable for $8 million in unpaid dispatcher overtime. Some dispatchers had filed a lawsuit seeking overtime wages the city had not paid.

The LAFD's dispatchers are firefighters, not civilians as in many other agencies. Dispatchers make an average of $95,700 a year in base salary and earn overtime pay for their 56-hour-a-week schedules. 

The expected savings from the staffing changes were factored into this year's city budget. Each month the changes are delayed, the city goes an additional $266,000 in the red, according to City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana.

The union representing firefighters opposes the changes, saying they would leave the call center understaffed and will not save money.

Frank Lima, president of United Firefighters of Los Angeles City, said his team is open to negotiation and wants to come up with a plan acceptable to all sides. "We'll try in good faith to do the best we can," Lima said.

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--Kate Linthicum, Ben Welsh and Robert J. Lopez at Los Angeles City Hall

Photo: Dispatcher Tony Porrata turns to talk to another dispatcher about a call. Credit: Bob Chamberlin/Los Angeles Times

 
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L.A. Now is the Los Angeles Times’ breaking news section for Southern California. It is produced by more than 80 reporters and editors in The Times’ Metro section, reporting from the paper’s downtown Los Angeles headquarters as well as bureaus in Costa Mesa, Long Beach, San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, Riverside, Ventura and West Los Angeles.
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