Loading...

LAFD Response-Time Scandal 

Chief Cummings' plummeting morale problem

Thursday, Mar 29 2012
Comments

At a special meeting of the City Council's Public Safety Committee last week, flanked by camera crews, Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Brian Cummings was calm and confident, but the 32-year veteran was in trouble nonetheless.

In two weeks of turmoil that had prompted the meeting, Cummings created an uproar by instituting an information blackout on routine news regarding LAFD emergency rescue calls, and more than once changed his story about why his department gave out false data that depicted L.A. firefighters' response times as being far faster than they are.

Experts say the difference between a five-minute arrival on the scene, and a six- or seven-minute response time, can result in the death or disabling of a victim. But for years, LAFD has been quietly padding its results, shifting the calls that take six minutes into the "five minutes or less" column.

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY JARED BOGGESS
  • ILLUSTRATION BY JARED BOGGESS

Related Stories

  • Quake Shocker 7

    In ex - City Councilman Hal Bernson's day, Los Angeles was a leader in preparing for the Big One, the 7 magnitude or greater earthquake that geologists say is inevitable and overdue - and will be unleashed upon Los Angeles by the San Andreas, Hollywood, Puente Hills, Santa Monica or...
  • Behind the Scenes With a Political Consultant 8

    Michael Trujillo can't quite shake this cough. He's had it for weeks, picked up on the campaign trail. He needs to meet his mother in the Valley to get one of his old inhalers, which he places on his desk next to a laptop and a bottle of Advil. "There's...
  • L.A.'s Culture War Over America's Last True Skid Row

    "Yo!" A black man in a filthy, yellow, collared shirt lies sprawled out in the middle of the Sixth Street sidewalk, out cold. No more than four inches from his face is a Business Improvement District officer, who shouts again: "Yo!" "Is he breathing?" asks a woman passing by, worried...
  • Solving Los Angeles: 2020 Commission Seeks Far-Reaching Change 2

    Our story begins back in the heady days of March 2013. With Los Angeles knee-deep in the muck of the mayoral election, City Council president Herb Wesson announced the formation of a blue-ribbon committee to figure out just what the hell is wrong with the city's economy, find some way...
  • Cash Giveaway 6

    L.A. has the worst roads in the nation, a parking-ticket army gone rogue, and a housing crisis that has middle class families scrambling to afford even a crappy apartment to rent. But the L.A. City Council, as always, seems to think that giving your hard earned money to rich people is the solution to many of our...

Under pressure to explain, Cummings admitted that LAFD did not give the City Council true response-time numbers when the council slashed its budget last year. Cummings' team gave computer projections instead, assuring city leaders that it could absorb the budget cut because in 2008 nearly 80 percent of emergency calls were answered in five minutes or less — a rosy record. But untrue. Just 64 percent of LAFD calls were answered that fast.

Now that number has sagged to 60 percent, and a once-heralded fire department is looking like a below-average outfit.

With critics suggesting the fire department lied, Cummings, in a March 16 letter, instituted a highly unusual news blackout on emergency calls, refusing to divulge the addresses or arrival times — key components for the public to judge if LAFD was arriving in five minutes or less.

Cummings told KNX Newsradio that his short-lived blackout was required under privacy law, and told City News Service that City Attorney Carmen Trutanich advised him to do it.

But as critics harshly questioned Cummings' judgment, Kelli Sager, one of the region's leading First Amendment attorneys, said the chief's directive was plainly illegal. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa then publicly slapped Cummings, sending him — and the city's reporters — a letter halting the blackout.

Cummings was now in the middle of the biggest political crisis the fire department had faced since the 2005 Tennie Pierce dog food incident. He attributed his snafus to misunderstandings. "It's been clear that the way I have presented the data has been confusing," Cummings told City Council members Mitch Englander, Jan Perry, Joe Buscaino, Paul Krekorian and Dennis Zine, who make up the public safety committee.

At the three-hour emergency meeting, no City Council member seemed eager to delve into what is emerging as a systemwide safety weakness in a department once held up as exemplary.

"The sky is not falling," insisted Zine, who is running for city controller. "The fire department is going to continue to respond to calls. We're not facing any major upheaval. ... There was a lot of hysteria."

"I have no reason to believe [Cummings] was telling anything but the truth," Englander said afterward. The false response times issued for years by LAFD are "not the scandal that's been politicized by mayoral candidates."

The council members appeared to mostly absolve Cummings. A majority of them, after all, approved Villaraigosa's deep budget cuts to LAFD — tens of millions of dollars over the past three years, which firefighters and others say have created longer response times to fires and other life-threatening situations.

"Resources were being drained," says Miracle Mile Residential Association president Jim O'Sullivan, who has researched the impact of budget cuts. "We need to get LAFD back to the point in which they can protect us."

The night before the meeting, Villaraigosa made light of what others see as systemic public-safety problems, joking about it at a roast for City Council President Herb Wesson. As first reported by news blog The City Maven and widely repeated, the mayor cracked: "Is Chief Cummings here yet? We called him five minutes ago. Late again."

But days later, a Villaraigosa aide asked the firefighters' union not to be "so public" over the response-time issue. United Firefighters of Los Angeles City President Pat McOsker says the aide asked him to "start talking nice." Instead, McOsker publicly declared: "I am going to be public every damn day. ... The bodies are piling up!"

Some firefighters say the response-time falsehoods and Cummings' news blackout are red flags that signal larger problems that could endanger the lives of citizens and firefighters.

Activist firefighters, who would only talk anonymously for fear of retaliation — such as holds put on their promotions — tell the Weekly that morale is at its lowest point in 20 years, driven, they say, by unstable and politicized leadership. Villaraigosa has placed four different chiefs at the helm — an unprecedented turnover, worse than the LAFD leadership changes of the 1970s — and "our chief is at the beck and call of the mayor," says a veteran with more than 20 years of service.

Related Content

Now Trending

Los Angeles Concert Tickets

Slideshows

  • 21st Annual Classic Cars "Cruise Night" in Glendale
    On Saturday, spectators of all ages were out in multitudes on a beautiful summer night in Glendale to celebrate the 21st annual Cruise Night. Brand Boulevard, one of the main streets through downtown Glendale, was closed to traffic and lined with over 250 classic, pre-1979 cars. There was plenty of food to be had and many of the businesses on Brand stayed open late for the festivities The evening ended with fireworks and a 50th anniversary concert from The Kingsmen, who performed their ultimate party hit, "Louie, Louie." All photos by Jared Cowan.
  • The World Cup Celebrated And Mourned By Angelenos
    The World Cup has taken Los Angeles by storm. With viewings beginning at 9 a.m., soccer fans have congregated at some of the best bars in the city including The Village Idiot, Goal, The Parlour on Melrose, Big Wang's and more. Whether they're cheering for their native country, favorite players or mourning the USA's loss, Angelenos have paid close attention to the Cup, showing that soccer is becoming more than a fad. All photos by Daniel Kohn.
  • La Brea Tar Pits "Pit 91" Re-Opening
    Starting June 28th, The Page Museum once again proudly unveils the museum's Observation Pit, which originally opened in 1952 but has spent most of the last half century closed. Now visitors can get an up-close look at Pit 91, which is currently under excavation. The La Brea Tar Pits, home of the Page Museum, is one of the world's most famous ice age fossil locations, known for range of fossils from saber-toothed cats and mammoths to microscopic plants, seeds and insects. The new "Excavator Tour" is free with museum admission if purchased online at tarpits.org . All photos by Nanette Gonzales.