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.
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.