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L.A. Fire Department troubles are a Beutner mayoral campaign theme

March 19, 2012 |  6:19 pm

Recent news about Los Angeles Fire Department problems have become a mayoral campaign theme for one candidate

Putting the growing controversy over Fire Department response times at the center of his Los Angeles mayoral campaign, candidate Austin Beutner on Monday called for a citizens task force to look into delays in emergency response and into what he sees as mismanagement of the department.

In an online column that he said would be published on the Huffington Post website Monday night, Beutner criticized the department’s performance in the wake of budget cuts and lambasted three of his leading opponents for not properly scrutinizing how cuts would hurt the city.

He complained that firetrucks and ambulances are not equipped with GPS technology and said that instead of moving its dispatch center into a new facility last month, the department should have spent money on better equipment.

As The Times reported Sunday, the department’s dispatch system has been plagued with problems since the Feb. 28 move. According to firefighters, in recent weeks some or all of the notifications that alert stations to emergencies have failed at times, leading to delayed responses to several medical calls and fires, including a South Los Angeles blaze in which two people died. The department has flown in experts to help fix the problem.

Beutner, a former investment banker who served for more than a year as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's "jobs czar," first raised the issue of response times nearly two weeks ago, when he wrote in a column that the cuts have sent response times for medical emergencies soaring.

The department refuted his claim by admitting an embarrassing fact: Beutner was comparing conflicting sets of statistics put out by officials.

For years, the department put out data that said rescuers arrived at medical emergencies within five minutes more than 80% of the time. But it had actually been using a six-minute time frame. LAFD statistician Capt. Mark Woolf said corrected data generated by a new computer system showed that in 2008, the department in fact hit the five-minute goal only 64% of the time and that by last year, the number had fallen to about 60%.

Beutner said any increase in response times is cause for concern. In his column Monday, he also complained about disproportionately long responses in certain parts of the city, including Porter Ranch and Encino. He cited a graph of response times at each of the city's 106 stations that was included in a department report to the Board of Fire Commissioners in November.

Fire Commission President Genethia Hudley-Hayes said the same graph also gave commissioners pause. When the commission asked fire officials to explain why there were spikes in response times in certain geographic areas, the officials said they were not statistically significant because they were based on data from only the first three months of a new deployment plan enacted because of the cuts, she said.

Hudley-Hayes said the issue may come up at the commission’s meeting Tuesday morning, when Fire Chief Brian Cummings will answer questions about response times and problems with the dispatch system.

A spokesman for the mayor, who has the authority to assemble a task force, said an audit of fire response times is already being conducted by the city controller.


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Photo: In this 2009 file photo, LAFD engineer Ron Tomacruz holds traffic in front of Station 39 in Van Nuys to allow a firetruck to back into a station. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times